OfS data reveal record inequality in UK completion rates

Figures should ‘concern us all’, warns regulator

March 29, 2023
Source: iStock

The gap in completion rates between disadvantaged students in England and their more advantaged peers has risen to record levels, figures show.

The Office for Students (OfS), which published the data, said universities could not afford to think “job done” when students from under-represented groups entered higher education if the issue was to be properly addressed.

The annual release shows that of those who entered higher education in 2017-18, 82.5 per cent of full-time undergraduates who had been eligible for free school meals completed their course, compared with 90.8 per cent of their more privileged peers.

This gap of 8.3 percentage points was the highest since comparable records began in 2012-13, and almost double the difference of just five years ago.

Similarly, the gap between the proportion of black students, who have the lowest completion rates, and white students, who have the highest, grew to a record 7.8 percentage points.

John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said the completion data should “concern us all”.

“Higher education in England has historically high completion rates, but this data shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups have been much more likely to drop out than their more advantaged peers,” he said. “These gaps are significant and, in some cases, are growing.”

The OfS said the new data, which have been added to the regulator’s access and participation dashboards for the first time, reinforce the “importance of quality underpinning equality of opportunity”.

“When we consulted on our new quality conditions, we heard, time and again, that we should be cautious about implementing expectations for student outcomes because those universities and colleges with weaker outcomes often had high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Mr Blake.

He said it was a “dangerous and patronising idea” to suggest that disadvantaged students should be prepared to accept poor quality courses, which can have a profound impact on their confidence, their finances and their future plans.

“Fundamentally, universities and colleges cannot sit back and think ‘job done’ when students from disadvantaged backgrounds get into higher education,” said Mr Blake.

The figures also show that 81.6 per cent of students from the most deprived backgrounds, measured using the indices of multiple deprivation, who started their course in 2017-18 completed it – a drop from 83.5 per cent in 2012-13.

Among the most advantaged cohort, 92.2 per cent finished their degree, down slightly from 92.4 per cent over the same period.

The OfS also released a new Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, which sets out a range of risks that universities and colleges should consider when drafting their plans to improve equality of opportunity.

It includes risks relating to the perception that higher education might not be right for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and concerns about academic and personal support for those at university.

“The register is designed to help all universities and colleges as they draw up their access and participation plans,” said Mr Blake.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (4)

Once again universities are expected to try to address society's ills. There are now too many demands without adequate funding and it then becomes easy to bash us for lack of progress. Disadvantage starts many years before university entrance and the results of any policy will not be apparent for at least ten years. This was the case with teenage pregnancy but such timescales do not fit with the short-term view of politicians.
Unfortunately the data do not show the reasons for failure to complete. It is not clear what proportion dropped out & what proportion failed the course.
Do not expect universities to do the job that the secondary schools should have done.
Lack of tuition fees is one of the reasons why students fail to complete their studies (international students that is). Another is the effects of bereavement, illness and being a long term carer.