Teenagers from affluent areas suffer biggest drop in university places in a decade

·4-min read
University students Ucas graduates - Chris Radburn/PA Wire
University students Ucas graduates - Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Data released on Thursday reveal the squeeze on university places for middle-class teenagers.

Eighteen-year-olds from the most advantaged areas have seen the first decline in entry rate to universities in a decade.

They were also the only group to see a decline in numbers securing places this year.

The findings came as universities are under pressure to accept more pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Figures from Ucas, the universities admissions service, showed that 88,940 teenagers from postcode areas rated “the most advantaged” accepted university places this year, down from 89,720 in 2021.

They also showed that a record 31,890 teenagers from the least affluent areas have accepted university places, up from 30,280 in 2021.

Teenagers from the most affluent areas are still the most likely to go to university, with a 50.9 per cent entry rate.

However, the gap has narrowed as universities come under pressure to improve access for pupils from the most disadvantaged areas, where the entry rate was 24 per cent this year.

Ucas said the figures revealed that “widening participation continues to grow”.

John Blake, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said earlier this year that universities needed to “redouble their efforts to ensure their doors are open to talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

The stance has led to accusations that universities are discriminating against private school pupils or teenagers from more advantaged backgrounds.

Prominent private schools such as Eton College have seen a drop in success rate for applicants securing places at Oxford and Cambridge and their pupils are increasingly looking to study at American universities.

Lord Willetts - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Lord Willetts - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

Lord Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister, told The Telegraph that teenagers from private schools or affluent backgrounds would be displaced by disadvantaged pupils unless more universities are built.

He said: “If every extra place for a disadvantaged student comes at the expense of a place of a student from a more advantaged background, it’s much harder to win the game.

“One of the reasons why you need to have an increase in the total number of higher education places is so you’re not depriving some young people of an opportunity they would otherwise have had.”

Marginal increase in university admissions

Ucas data show offer rates for teenagers placed in five groups according to the proportion of young people who enter higher education from that area.

The methodology, known as Polar, is a key tool used by universities to assess whether a candidate is disadvantaged.

The rate of teenagers from the most advantaged areas, defined using Polar methodology, with accepted university places fell by 1.8 percentage points, the first decline since 2012. The rate of secured entries from teenagers from the least advantaged areas improved by 0.5 percentage points.

Overall, 275,390 UK 18-year-olds have been accepted onto a university course, up marginally on last year and 15 per cent higher than in 2019, the last year when results were based on exams.

The number represents 37.3 per cent of all 18-year-olds, slightly lower than last year when grades were based on teacher assessments but well above the 33.8 per cent entry rate in 2019.

Universities accepted 62,200 international students, which accounted for 12 per cent of all accepted students. The number of international students given a place has risen by 4.5 per cent compared to last year but is 12.5 per cent lower than in 2019.

Lucrative apprenticeships for middle-class students

Education experts have warned that 2022 was the start of a new era of more competitive university admissions, with the number of applicants expected to rise from about 700,000 to one million in 2026 because of more 18-year-olds in the population and increasing demand from international students.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that some middle-class students this year will have taken advantage of sought-after apprenticeships offered by companies such as Deloitte, Lloyds Bank and BP.

Some of those who have not accepted a place are also likely to have applied to Russell Group universities, where places have been particularly competitive after some institutions found they were oversubscribed during the pandemic as a result of grade inflation.

He said that if there is a recession, demand from upper middle-class children is likely to increase, “because alternatives to higher education get worse in a recession”.