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Reaching out: The added value of HESA’s new measure of socioeconomic disadvantage

Further work on our measure of disadvantage revealed an error in the generation of HESA measure deciles. Our output area files for England, Wales and Scotland contained statistics for higher level geographies (either local authorities, regions and/or countries), which had not been removed prior to the formation of the deciles.

HESA measure deciles have been recreated based on a total of 232,296 output areas (181,408 in England and Wales, 46,531 in Scotland and 4,537 in Northern Ireland). Around 1% of output areas changed from quintile 1 to a higher quintile or vice versa. Approximately 5% of output areas were affected when undertaking an analysis by decile. We have found the impact of this to be minimal and the conclusions of our research are not materially altered.


As part of the ongoing development of this new measure, HESA researchers extend previous work around the usefulness of the variable to the higher education sector.

Existing area-based measures used in the UK to assess or proxy for socioeconomic disadvantage are known to have their limitations with regards to the extent to which they effectively capture deprivation. This insight explores the characteristics of students that fall within quintile 1 of HESA’s new measure of disadvantage, but are located in quintiles 2 to 5 of both the participation of local areas (POLAR) and the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. In doing so, we illustrate the relevance and value of our measure in helping to support the objective for more equitable prosperity/opportunity across the UK.

1. Introduction

In October last year, HESA published a report outlining the development of a new UK-wide measure of socioeconomic disadvantage using Census 2011 data. To date, feedback received from some of our statutory customers, as well as those working within the widening participation field, has been supportive of the potential benefits that this new variable could generate to those working in the sector.

Outreach activity continues to be an important aspect of the widening access agenda within higher education, though individual-level information is generally less well suited to assist such work (e.g. due to not always being practical and/or for data protection reasons).[1] However, existing area-based measures that are often utilised to identify localities to target are known to have their limitations. For instance, the POLAR measure is less likely to pick up deprivation in parts of the country which have high levels of higher education participation, such as Scotland and London. Meanwhile, the Indices of Multiple Deprivation are recognised in being unable to capture disadvantage in rural spots effectively. Furthermore, there are very few variables that can be used on a UK-wide basis, meaning that figures cannot be compared across different geographical domains.

As a producer of official statistics, we seek to comply with the Code of Practice and thus continuously evaluate the relevance, value and comparability of our data. Indeed, the purpose of the October study was to provide the sector with a new UK-wide variable that could help with outreach activity by adding value through overcoming some of the known drawbacks of existing area-based measures. As POLAR data is only available to us in quintiles (and individuals in quintile 1 are considered to be from low participation neighbourhoods), our research defined those who were within quintile 1 of a measure as being a disadvantaged student.

In this insight piece, we will therefore focus on examining the characteristics of students who fall within quintile 1 of our measure, but quintiles 2 to 5 of both POLAR and the Indices of Multiple Deprivation to shed further light on the value of our area-based variable. We hope this additional analysis will be useful to policymakers and higher education staff working within this field.

2. The current policy landscape

Since the publication of our original research, we have seen further policy developments in three of the four home nations relating to widening participation.[2] The current administration in England announced in November 2021 that they expect providers in the country to revise access and participation plans as part of the broader national objective of ‘levelling up’.[3] In particular, providers will be expected to use their outreach activities to improve educational attainment among disadvantaged pupils through working with schools and colleges.[4] This was also reiterated in the ‘Levelling up the United Kingdom’ White Paper.[5] In Scotland, recommendations 15/16 in the final report of the Commission on Widening Access highlighted the role that providers are expected to play in increasing attainment and aspiration, especially among disadvantaged pupils.[6] Most recently, the government provided its response to the Scottish Funding Council’s (SFC) review of tertiary education and agreed with the proposal of enhancing widening access work in forthcoming years.[7] Within Wales, the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill put forward to the Senedd on 1st November 2021 specifies that one of the nine strategic duties will be to promote equality of opportunity. The Bill outlines how work towards this target should involve encouraging participation among groups under-represented in higher education, which may be the result of social, cultural, economic or organisational factors.[8] At present, the Reaching Wider programme is the initiative through which outreach activity aimed at increasing aspiration and attainment is conducted in the nation.[9] Within Northern Ireland, key action 5 of the ‘Access to Success’ strategy highlights government endorsement of outreach work, with acknowledgement being given to the fact that providers could help with raising attainment.[10]

3. Data

We draw upon the same dataset used in our October 2021 release to conduct our analysis. In contrast to that work, we now focus on examining the characteristics of those students who fall within quintile 1 of our measure, but quintiles 2 to 5 of both POLAR4 and the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. We summarise our findings for each of the four nations below. This includes (where possible) some indication of income or poverty in the areas we capture, as well as levels of educational attainment.

4. Results


We find a total of 24,745 English domiciled students in our dataset fall into quintile 1 of our measure. 4,825 or approximately 20% of these individuals are situated within quintiles 2 to 5 of POLAR4 and the 2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation in England (IMD). Focusing on this group of just over 4,800 students, we find that, prior to starting their course, around two-thirds were living in either Northern or Central England and often within medium to large towns. These include places such as Bolton, Tameside, Sandwell and Walsall. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) illustrate that weekly earnings in such localities are far below the national average and rank among the lowest within their Combined Authority.[11] Furthermore, looking at data on Key Stage 4 performance by local authority, we observe that places such as Leicester, Sandwell and Walsall also display some of the lowest levels of educational attainment in the country.[12]

Key finding: The added value of our measure to providers in England looking to conduct outreach activity is its ability to capture deprivation in medium to large towns in Northern and Central England, where pupils are currently performing less well in national school examinations.


1,575 Welsh domiciled students were found to be in quintile 1 of our measure, with 30% (480) of these simultaneously being situated in quintiles 2 to 5 of POLAR4 and the 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD). We find that around 34% of these 480 students resided in Rhondda, Caerphilly or Neath Port Talbot. We also note that school attainment in these locations is generally lower than the national average in Wales.[13]

When examining the Middle Layer Super Output Areas (MSOAs) in some of the local authorities that only our measure exclusively captured in quintile 1, we found this included places such as Ystrad & Llwynypia (Rhondda), Treorchy (Rhondda), Tonyrefail (Rhondda), Bargoed (Caerphilly) and Risca (Caerphilly). Many of these localities appear to be particularly experiencing employment and education deprivation.[14] In Rhondda, these vicinities tend to have levels of child poverty that exceed the proportion observed across the local authority as a whole.[15]

Key finding: The additional benefit of our variable in this part of the UK is that it is capturing deprived areas within South Wales.


Despite the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) being used for national targeting, the Commission on Widening Access has noted the concerns raised within the higher education sector around the fact that SIMD does not sufficiently capture deprivation in rural areas.[16]

Out of the 1,840 Scottish domiciled students that sit within quintile 1 of our measure, 870 (47%) are based within POLAR4 and 2012 SIMD quintiles 2 to 5. Almost 20% of these 870 students resided in either North or South Lanarkshire before beginning their course. Looking at the data based on the eight category urban-rural classification, we find that 7% of these 870 students were located in remote small towns (categories 4 and 5 in the urban-rural classification) in places such as Moray and Aberdeenshire, while a further 13% lived in rural areas (categories 6, 7 and 8 in the urban-rural classification), including localities in Dumfries and Galloway, the Highlands and East Ayrshire. Although we are unable to look at a more granular level of geography in Scotland, the statistics reported by The Health Foundation highlight that areas such as North Lanarkshire, as well as Dumfries and Galloway, have high child poverty rates.[17] Indeed, a number of the places mentioned above also display educational attainment levels that are below the average across the country.[18]

Key finding: In Scotland, it has been suggested that SIMD does not suitably capture the deprivation that exists outside of the major cities and towns. Indeed, this limitation also extends to POLAR in this nation. We have illustrated that quintile 1 of our measure incorporates a greater breadth of the country, including rural locations and remote towns. Furthermore, some of the key council areas in which these vicinities are based are known to have greater levels of deprivation and lower academic attainment.

In the first instance therefore, this area-based measure could be particularly useful in supporting activities carried out to meet recommendation 15 in the final report of the Commission on Widening Access by helping to highlight a wider range of disadvantaged communities than either POLAR or SIMD presently identifies.

Northern Ireland

We find that, out of the 1,300 students in quintile 1 of our measure, 440 (34%) are not captured in the equivalent quintiles of either POLAR or the 2010 Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (NIMDM). In particular, we note that 57% of students who are exclusively found within quintile 1 of our measure are from the 2014 Local Government Districts (LGDs) of Causeway Coast and Glens; Mid Ulster; Newry, Mourne and Down, or Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon. Figures published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) estimate that the gross median hourly pay was lowest in Causeway Coast and Glens in 2021 (based on the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings). Mid Ulster; Newry, Mourne and Down, as well as Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon had median hourly earnings below the country average.[19] School attainment in many of these LGDs is also quite low relative to other parts of Northern Ireland.[20] As data is not published at District Electoral Areas (DEA) level, we are unable to drill down further into whether the localities that our measure picks up typically have low household incomes.

Key finding: When looking at the binary urban-rural classification variable we have available in our dataset for Northern Ireland, we see that 50% of students that are found in quintile 1 of our measure only are from rural areas. In a similar trend to what we note in Scotland therefore, our measure adds value by being able to pick up disadvantage outside of the major cities and towns of Northern Ireland (e.g. Belfast). It therefore has the potential to assist with meeting key action 5 of the ‘Access to Success’ strategy.

5. Next Steps

Over the course of the coming months/years, we will be seeking to continue our work in this field in line with what was discussed in our October report (e.g. updating our study using Census 2021 information). In the meantime, we welcome any further comments/feedback on the types of outputs and/or visualisations users would value HESA producing in this area. These can be sent to [email protected].


[2] Within Northern Ireland, an independent review of various aspects of their education system is currently underway. See for further information.

Tej Nathwani

Tej Nathwani

Principal Researcher (Economist)
Siobhan Donnelly

Siobhan Donnelly

Lead Statistical Analyst



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