University participation rates are falling rather than rising in the areas where they have traditionally been the lowest, according to a report published on 19 October.
The analysis by the University and College Union also shows that, in the 21 cities studied, the number of people going to university is increasing fastest in areas with historically high participation rates.
The union says the findings expose a “postcode lottery of educational achievement” and show how the gap between the “haves and have-nots” has widened in recent years.
In the 20 constituencies with the lowest level of university participation in 2008, the proportion of the working-age population educated to at least degree level fell from 12.6 per cent in 2005 to 12.1 per cent in 2008.
However, in the 20 constituencies with the highest level of participation, the rate increased from 48.8 per cent to 57.2 per cent over the three years.
The Conservative-held constituency of Richmond Park was the highest-achieving area in 2008, with a 63.61 per cent participation rate, up 12.3 percentage points since 2005.
It was followed by Bristol West, the constituency of Liberal Democrat Shadow Universities Secretary Stephen Williams, at 62.49 per cent.
The two areas with the fewest degree-educated constituents in 2008 were both Labour held: West Bromwich East, which saw the participation rate fall from 18.78 per cent to 14.41 per cent in three years, and Warley, where the rate dropped from 19.33 to 14.02 per cent.
Of the 20 constituencies with the highest percentage of people with no qualifications, eight were in the West Midlands, while the majority of the constituencies with the most graduates were in the capital.
Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “The current Government has rightly prioritised investment in education but this report shows that the problem is even more deep-seated than previously thought and is a challenge for all the parties.
“Education holds the key to improving social mobility, tackling poverty and extending opportunity for all. Those with the greatest access to qualifications tend to be healthier, wealthier and more active citizens.
“Yet, as this report shows, the current divide between the haves and have-nots is growing, with where you live largely determining your chance of educational success.”