‘Local’ students just one in 10 at some elite universities

Durham again found to have lowest proportion of students from its own region, but highlights work to boost north east's low HE participation rate

April 3, 2024
Empty seats at a Test Match at The Riverside in Chester-le-Street, England to illustrate ‘Local’ students just one in 10 at some elite universities
Source: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Some elite universities in England continue to admit just a fraction of their student body from within their own region, analysis reveals, while other institutions in Northern Ireland and Scotland have little if any intake from outside their borders.

Figures provided to Times Higher Education by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) show that 50 per cent of UK first-degree full-time students were attending university within their own region in 2021-22.

This was down slightly from the year before, but there were wide variations across the 158 institutions included in the data.

Just 10 per cent of UK students at Durham University were from the north east of England – down from 10.5 per cent in 2020-21 and the lowest proportion of any UK institution. However, Durham is located in a region that has the lowest A-level attainment and higher education progression rate for 18-year-olds of any UK region.

It was followed by Loughborough University (with 12 per cent of its students from the East Midlands), the University of Warwick (12.8 per cent from the West Midlands), the University of Cambridge (13.8 per cent from the east of England) and the University of Nottingham (14.9 per cent from the East Midlands).

The issue is not a new one, with some universities previously criticised for their limited local student intake.

Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, told THE that a lack of local students means that it is much more likely for there to be a disconnection between a university and its local community, potentially giving rise to “a sense that whilst [the university] is located in the community, it is not a part of the community with local people feeling that it is ‘not for them’.”

“Given that a key role of universities is to make knowledge available to all who can benefit from it, this is a major problem and can cause tensions between students and local people,” he added.

Professor Ashwin said this situation is likely to occur where institutions have high entry requirements and do not have successful outreach programmes that support local people to attend the university.

It appears vice-chancellors are concerned about the issue, with Deborah Prentice, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, recently admitting that her institution’s intake was “skewed towards London and the south east”.

Elite institutions such as Cambridge had a much lower proportion of students from within their region than others. Among all Russell Group universities, 35 per cent of the student body was local – compared with 56 per cent among the rest.

And this proportion dips to just 29 per cent across the 20 English members of the Russell Group.

However, Sandra McNally, professor of economics at the University of Surrey, said having few local students is not much of an issue – one would expect elite institutions to have fewer locals attending because the competition is “immense and they have a strong international reputation”.

“I’d be more concerned if everyone was trying to go local as it might suggest limited horizons and credit constraints [among students], especially with the cost-of-living crisis and the lower real value of university loans,” she added.

Professor McNally said other issues – including the large geographic variation in who participates in higher education, and why some regions are less successful in attracting graduates to their workforce – are of greater concern.

At the other end of the scale, two higher education providers in Belfast – Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College – drew all their students from Northern Ireland, while Ulster University’s student body was 99 per cent from Northern Ireland.

This was closely followed by Robert Gordon University and Glasgow Caledonian University, which drew, respectively, 99 per cent and 98 per cent of their students from Scotland.

Across Northern Ireland’s four higher education providers in the data, 96 per cent of students were from the nation – compared with 83 per cent in Scotland, 49 per cent in Wales, and 45 per cent in England.

The Hesa figures do not include every provider because some have not given permission for their data to be released in this way.

A Durham spokesperson said: “Through our outreach activities and a strengthened focus on scholarships for students from north-east England, we have made great progress in recruiting significant numbers of students from our region, which has the lowest progression and A-level attainment rates in the country. 

“We want to ensure more students from our region have the aspiration, potential and support to apply to Durham University and succeed with us.

“This is why we are expanding our work with state primary and secondary schools, further education colleges and other north-east universities, to raise aspirations and improve levels of attainment from an early age.

“We are partnering with Durham Sixth Form Centre to open Durham Mathematics School and offer state-funded A-level courses to Year 12 and 13 students who would not otherwise have access to post-16 mathematics education. Our Durham Inspired North East scholarships, one of several scholarships for local students, have been specifically designed to support applicants from our region.

“We are determined to continue progress in widening access to and participation in higher education in the years ahead.”

Mike Nicholson, director of recruitment, admissions and participation at Cambridge, said analysis has shown that once grades are controlled for, the number of students applying to Oxford and Cambridge from East Anglia is at expected levels.

He said Cambridge has recently enhanced its range of outreach programmes focused on supporting students, teachers and parents in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and works collaboratively with other universities and colleges in the region.

A Glasgow Caledonian spokesperson said its commitment to inclusivity, widening access and supporting its local community is at the core of its mission.

“We believe that everyone should have the chance to pursue higher education, regardless of their background,” they added.

A Loughborough spokesperson said the university is highly ranked and world renowned for its sporting ecosystem so attracts applications from across the UK. “But we remain committed to raising aspirations in the region through our outreach activities and universities partnership, working with other HE providers in the local area,” they added.

RGU declined to comment. Warwick, Nottingham, Stranmillis, St Mary’s and Ulster have all been approached for comment.


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