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Using Census data to generate a UK-wide measure of disadvantage - Introduction and context

1. Introduction and policy context

The fundamental purpose of this paper is to present the higher education sector with a new area-level measure of socioeconomic disadvantage based on Census (2011) data. We define individuals to be disadvantaged if they live in a UK output area that falls into the bottom 20%, after ranking such localities based on the qualifications and occupations held by residents. We then go on to supply evidence on how this can complement and provide additional advantages relative to existing area-level variables currently utilised in widening participation activity. In particular, we illustrate its potential UK-wide applicability, as well as its capability to support current policy objectives centred around opening up opportunity and increasing prosperity across all regions of the country.

While existing measures used in widening access such as the participation of local areas (POLAR) and state school marker can be produced at a UK-wide level, their relevance and usefulness vary across the UK. The result has been the adoption of different variables to support widening participation across the home nations. However, the ability to compare statistics across domains is one of the pillars of quality as set out in the European Statistical System Quality Assurance Framework.

Our duty as a producer of statistics is to continuously evaluate the value of our data to users. In its 2019 assessment of Great Britain, the Social Mobility Commission highlighted that ‘Social mobility is fundamentally about ensuring that a person’s occupation and income are not tied to where they started in life. Yet it is about much more than that. It is about fairness across society and ensuring that people of all backgrounds get equal opportunities and choices in early years, at school, in further education, in universities and at work.’[1] Though higher education is a devolved matter, all four nations have an agenda that aims to help under-represented groups (such as disabled students, care leavers and those from poorer households) consider and have access to higher education courses. In doing so, they seek to ensure there is equal opportunity for all and thereby support the advancement of social mobility. Given our measure relates to socioeconomic disadvantage, this is the under-represented group that is the focus of our paper. 

In England, the current Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, highlighted that ‘We need to double down on eliminating equality gaps in higher education today…I want to be clear that as Universities Minister, this is my top priority’.[2] Indeed, as part of the work towards this ambition, English universities are stipulated to submit access and participation plans to the Office for Students (OfS) – the regulator for higher education in England - if they wish to charge fees above the basic cap. These plans set out the policies and practices that will be executed by a provider to encourage greater entry into higher education among under-represented groups (one of which covers individuals from poorer backgrounds). In a similar vein, universities in Wales are also required to devise fee and access plans under the Higher Education (Wales) Act 2015. These are presented to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) for approval and outline how providers intend to widen access among those under-represented in higher education, including students from more socioeconomically deprived areas. More recently, the 2021 to 2026 Programme for Government in Wales sets out a promise to continue tackling educational inequality.[3] The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, stated in 2014 that ‘I want us to determine now that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities’.[4] To achieve this aim, a Commission on Widening Access was created in 2015, with ‘A Blueprint for Fairness’ subsequently published, which outlines ways to achieve equal access.[5] Moreover, the Scottish Funding Council’s (SFC) review of the coherence and sustainability of Scotland’s tertiary education sector sets out an ambition for continued progress in this area.[6] ‘Access to Success’ – the strategy for widening participation in Northern Ireland - was disseminated by the Department for Employment and Learning in 2012 (higher education is now within the remit of the Department for the Economy) and states that ‘any qualified individual in Northern Ireland should be able to gain access to higher education, irrespective of their personal or social background.’[7]

Additionally, a policy goal in all four parts of the UK is for prosperity and opportunity to be distributed more evenly across all aspects of the country. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson outlined that ‘levelling up’ would be a key aim of his government, which would not only involve closing opportunity gaps, but also ‘unleashing the productive power not just of London and the South East, but of every corner of England’.[8] It was recently revealed that a White Paper is expected on this issue later in 2021, with the announcement accompanied by the government reaffirming its commitment to ensuring all have access to the same opportunities and living standards can be raised more broadly across the country.[9] Following the statement on the publication schedule for the White Paper, the House of Lords Public Services Committee subsequently commented in a position paper that ‘not only places, but the people who live in them should be at the heart of ‘levelling up’’.[10] A recommendation was made for the ‘levelling up’ strategy to include expenditure on ‘social infrastructure’ such as higher education institutions to help boost local skill levels. Also around this time, Lord Wharton (the new chair of the OfS) pointed out that ‘We know that talent is spread across the country, but opportunity is not…By casting their nets wide, searching for talent where opportunity may be in short supply, universities have the power to transform lives.’[11] In 2017, the Welsh Government released the ‘Prosperity for all’ economic action plan within which they underline their wish to tackle regional inequality and support skills development among people from all backgrounds and places.[12] Furthermore, the 2020 ‘A framework for regional investment in Wales’ paper highlights that ‘further and higher education and employers that are anchored in local communities have a significant role to play in upskilling and offering employment to people who often come from areas of high deprivation’.[13] Scotland’s Economic Strategy sets out its goal for inclusive growth, which is defined as ‘growth that combines increased prosperity with greater equality, creates opportunities for all and distributes the benefits of increased prosperity fairly’.[14] Moreover, the role of widening access to higher education in supporting the inclusive growth agenda is highlighted in Scotland’s Labour Market Strategy.[15] The 2012 Economic Strategy for Northern Ireland outlined the objective for more balanced growth across the country, noting that ‘we will ensure that all sub regions are able to grow and prosper, whilst recognising the importance of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry as key drivers of economic growth’. Furthermore, a pledge was also made to ‘ensure that no section of the community is left behind’. It was acknowledged that rebalancing the economy would necessitate improving skill levels across the workforce, with higher education seen as a vital mechanism by which to achieve this.[16]

The compilation and distribution of relevant data on access to higher education is key to nations being able to monitor the extent to which these policy objectives are being met. One of our core aims at HESA is to disseminate data that advances knowledge about higher education, while also helping our key data users (e.g. higher education providers, policymakers, funding councils etc) in their decision-making. In line with our research strategy and the Code of Practice for Statistics, this work is designed to deploy an innovative and low-cost approach, which can enhance our data collection in this area and ultimately improve the value of the statistics that we are able to supply users on this topic, given their policy targets. Furthermore, as we are obtaining this data directly from published Census information, there is no additional collection burden placed on providers.

It should also be emphasised that we are not advocating for this alternative measure to displace existing area-level measures, which also have their merits, as we illustrate later in this report. Alongside the importance of developing national statistics on the journey of under-represented students (such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds) through higher education, it should be recognised that universities will often carry out local initiatives in their attempts to widen participation. It is unlikely that any single area-level measure will adequately capture deprivation in all areas of the country, meaning providers in different locations may wish to have access to (and utilise) more than just one measure. Rather, this variable we have constructed could offer an additional tool that the likes of providers and policymakers may draw upon for their work on this matter.

The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Section 2 offers a brief overview of existing measures that are (or could be) used as part of the widening access agenda, alongside explaining why area-based measures are likely to continue to have a role in widening participation and how our work will contribute to the field. This is followed by a summary of our data sources, as well as the approach behind the creation of our measure. Results for each of the four nations are then presented where we examine how the composition of students differs across quintile 1 of various area-level measures used in widening participation activity. The study closes with further remarks and next steps.

Back: Executive Summary Next: 2. Widening participation: What measures are or could be available?

[3] Part of the Programme for Government - -  will involve taking the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill through the Senedd, with the Bill highlighting a continued requirement on providers to develop Access and Opportunity Plans for endorsement.