University access in Wales depends on school attended, study finds

Significant variations in higher education participation persist when educational attainment and background taken into account

September 25, 2015
Boy with Welsh flag

Welsh students’ chances of getting into university vary dramatically according to the school that they attended, irrespective of their individual educational attainment, new research reveals.

A study conducted by Cardiff University found that pupils attending schools with strong records of higher education participation were nearly three times as likely to get a place at university compared with children at schools with average levels of participation, regardless of exam results, socio-economic background or ethnicity.

Pupils from schools with the lowest records of higher education participation were 42 per cent less likely to go to university than their peers at average schools.

The report, submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, also found substantial differences in participation between local authorities, even once individual and school-level variables were controlled for.

Surprisingly, some of the areas where pupils had the best chance of getting into university were, according to the researchers’ model, among the poorest in Wales.

For example, in Merthyr Tydfil, young men are almost three times as likely to participate in higher education as those in the average council area, and young women are more than twice as likely to do so.

Chris Taylor, professor of education policy at Cardiff, who led the study with colleague Gareth Rees, said that “major inequalities” in higher education participation persisted in Wales.

“For schools, the message is clear,” Professor Taylor said. “They need to be as concerned about the destinations of school-leavers as they are over levels of attainment.

“The findings indicate clearly that the widening access agenda must be embedded into all stages of the educational journey to shape patterns of entry into higher education.”

The researchers found that patterns of inequality were broadly similar to those in England, despite differences in policy approaches – although much of the study is based on data that predate the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in English universities.

Welsh-domiciled women have a higher education participation rate by the age of 20 of 38.7 per cent, compared with 30.3 per cent for men, the study says.

Students who are eligible for free school meals are much less likely to go to university, while black and ethnic minority pupils were found to be much more likely to enrol in higher education than their white counterparts.

The researchers recommend that the Welsh government introduce a national strategic framework for widening access to higher education.

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