‘Mismatch’ between grades and course ‘bigger for poor students’

Female students are also more likely than men to be ‘undermatched’ to courses with lower graduate earnings

December 5, 2019
Source: Getty

Students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to end up studying at less selective universities and courses than their school grades would allow them, data from a study suggest.

The paper, which says it is the first to look at the amount of “mismatch” there is in the UK between school attainment and where people actually study, found that a “significant” number of students enrol on courses that do not match their school grades.

The results of the study, by researchers at the UCL Institute of Education, suggest that students from poor backgrounds were “more likely to undermatch, and less likely to overmatch”, than those from affluent backgrounds.

Female students were more likely to undertake courses where graduates typically went on to earn less, even though they had the grades needed to apply for degrees promising higher future earnings, the study also found.

For the research, published on 5 December, the authors examined data on students’ school grades and compared this information with the typical entry levels for the courses they enrolled on as well as the graduate earnings for those courses.

They found “substantial amounts of both undermatch and overmatch”, with 30 per cent of students being mismatched to their course when considering entry grades and 46 per cent when using the earnings-based measure.

But, for both measures, “low SES [socio-economic status] students attend courses that are less academically selective, and with lower average earnings five years after graduation, than their high SES counterparts, even when they have similar levels of prior attainment”.

The researchers also discovered that although women and men attended “equally academically selective courses”, female students tended to pursue courses with “substantially lower average earnings than men, even when they have similar prior attainment”, something that was “potentially important for understanding the gender pay gap”.

These gender gaps could be “largely”, but not completely, explained by subject studied at university, but the gaps on socio-economic background were “driven by secondary school attended”.

The authors identified that students from poorer backgrounds who travelled further to university were less likely to be “undermatched” to their course. But the large SES gaps remained for students who enrolled at universities closer to home.

White and some black students with the highest school grades were also undermatched more often than other ethnic minorities, with the gaps higher when considering earnings.

Co-author Gill Wyness, deputy director of the IoE’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, said the findings pointed to the importance of information, advice and guidance in steering choices for students from certain backgrounds.

“For some reason, kids from low SES backgrounds are not getting the same information; or maybe they are getting it but they’re not paying attention to it,” she said.

The report suggests that a post-qualification admissions system – in which students apply to university after receiving their grades – could help to reduce the amount of mismatch.

It also puts forward the idea of students being specifically targeted through the Ucas admissions process with suggestions of where their grades – whether predicted or obtained – could gain them entry.

“I think if you have uncertainty in the applications process, then I think that it’s not really that helpful for low SES students,” Dr Wyness said. “Predicted grades add another layer of uncertainty into people’s applications.”

The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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