Report highlights access benefit for children of graduates

State school students in England with university-educated parents are five times more likely to reach higher education than those from "disadvantaged backgrounds", and are also more likely to go to an elite institution.

December 14, 2012

That is the finding of new research by academics at the Institute of Education, University of London, demonstrating the part played by family background in determining which state-educated pupils go on to university.

The findings have emerged from an analysis of university entry data for four English-speaking countries - England, Canada, Australia and the United States.

The research was conducted by John Jerrim, lecturer in economics and social science, and Anna Vignoles, visiting professor in the Institute's department of quantitative social science.

It shows that the association between family background and university entry is notably stronger in England and Canada than in Australia and the United States.

However, in all four countries, young people with university-educated parents are significantly more likely to go on to higher education and attend an elite institution.

Dr Jerrim and Professor Vignoles write: "Previous research has found that qualifications from elite institutions offer economic rewards above and beyond those from a 'typical' bachelor's degree.

"Hence it is a concern that young people from advantaged homes are the main beneficiaries of this labour-market premium."

The pair say that although improving the school achievement of less advantaged pupils should be the priority, universities could also be encouraged to use contextual data, including on family background, when considering student applications.

"This is a topical (and controversial) issue in England, where the social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn, recently stated that he would 'like to see universities as a whole grasp the nettle of contextual data'," they write.

Dr Jerrim and Professor Vignoles also suggest that some governments might want to encourage universities to use contextual data by adapting England's policy of allowing institutions to boost their tuition fee revenue by accepting unlimited numbers of very able students (those achieving at least AAB at A level).

The threshold could be altered for students from low-income families, providing elite institutions with an incentive to recruit a greater number of able children from disadvantaged backgrounds, they suggest.

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