MORE THAN 100,000 extra students would crowd UK lecture theatres if as many people at the bottom of the social scale went to university as the current average.
Young people from the wealthiest neighbourhoods are at least five times as likely to enter higher education as those from the poorest, according to research commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and presented to Sir Ron Dearing's national committee of inquiry.
It found even mature and part-time students failed to redress the balance because these groups were also dominated by richer classes.
Liverpool University academics Peter Batey and Peter Brown, who carried out the study, estimate that if the number from poorly-represented neighbourhoods caught up with the national average and other participation rates remained the same, an extra 35,000 English young people would enter higher education every year - a 20 per cent increase. This would mean an extra 100,000 places overall.
They argue that while supply and demand for higher education now appear to be roughly equal, it is wrong to see the present participation rate of about 30 per cent as a natural maximum.
Professor Batey said: "Certain types of residential area have almost reached saturation point while other areas have a lot of catching up to do, although in these areas there may be other constraints, such as students being unable to afford higher education."
Their study involved looking at the post-codes of all English student entrants under 21 attending higher education institutions and assigning them to one of ten lifestyle neighbourhoods, defined by variables including typical age, occupation and average income of the people who lived there.
It found these lifestyle definitions significantly more influential than both region and gender on participation rates. While participation varied by only 10 per cent between regions, half of the young people living in the wealthiest neighbourhoods were likely to enter higher education (and 70 per cent in some) compared with just one in ten in the poorest.
Comparisons with mature entrants found little difference. Nor was the proportion of part-time students achieving higher education qualifications large enough to alter the picture.
This is the first time researchers have defined students by where they live. But the results support previous studies focussing on parental occupation.
Vice chancellors welcomed the study for pushing the social make-up of the student body to the heart of policy-making. One called it "a defining moment" because it tackled the last great challenge to the sector.
HEFCE is to continue monitoring participation rates from different neighbourhoods, including studying how they are effected by education policy.
Leader, page 13