The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which today published the findings on English-domiciled students attending UK universities, says the disparity in outcomes “can largely be explained” by the fact that students from different socio-economic backgrounds “arrive at university with very different levels of human capital”.
The findings also suggest that “a key part of any strategy to reduce socio-economic inequalities in degree acquisition and performance should be to increase the attainment of those from the poorest families earlier in the school system”, it adds.
The IFS paper says the findings are in “stark contrast” to previous analysis by the organisation which found that, among students with the same grades on entry to university, those from worse-performing schools were less likely to drop out, more likely to graduate and more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from better-performing schools.
“This suggests that it is more challenging for universities interested in using contextual data to inform their admissions policies to predict those with high potential based on socio-economic background than based on school characteristics,” says the paper, written by Clare Crawford, a research fellow of the IFS and assistant professor of economics at the University of Warwick.
The paper, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is titled “Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class”.
It used data from the National Pupil Database and the Higher Education Statistics Agency to follow English-domiciled entrants to UK universities between 2004-05 and 2009-10, “with each cohort including between 180,000 and 235,000 HE participants”.
The study used the home postcode of state school pupils at age 16 to create “an index of socio-economic background”.
Overall, students from the 20 per cent of the most disadvantaged backgrounds are 8.4 percentage points more likely to drop out of university within two years of entering, 13.3 percentage points less likely to complete their degree within 5 years and 22.9 percentage points less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from the 20 per cent of the most advantaged backgrounds.
Comparing those who studied on the same university course leaves “small but significant differences”, the study says.
On that score, those from the 20 per cent of the most disadvantaged backgrounds are still 3.4 percentage points more likely to drop out of university, 5.3 percentage points less likely to complete their degree and 3.7 percentage points less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from the 20 per cent of the most advantaged backgrounds.
The study suggests that the disparity in outcomes could be down to richer students having greater resilience, motivation or independent study skills; poorer students having more commitments that make it harder to study effectively; or richer families having more access to financial safety nets.