Are poor Scots half as likely to get into university as poor English pupils?

16 March 2017
What was claimed

You are twice as likely to get into university if you are poor and English as if you are poor and Scottish.

Our verdict

This is probably a reasonable claim, though the comparison is a bit tricky. It also doesn’t account for the substantial amount of higher education provided by further education colleges in Scotland.

“You are twice as likely to get into university if you are poor and English than if you are poor and Scottish."

Fraser Nelson, 9 March 2017

In last week’s BBC Question Time Fraser Nelson claimed that there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor in Scottish education. His previous articles on this issue have used UCAS data so that’s what we have looked at.

There are some flaws with UCAS’ data on Scottish education. This means that comparisons with England should be done cautiously. However, we can roughly say that 18 year olds living in the least advantaged areas in England are about twice as likely to go to university as 18 year olds in the least advantaged areas in Scotland, based on UCAS figures

This doesn’t mean that this is the case for higher education more generally, because this excludes a significant number of students in Scotland who study higher education in colleges.

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Educational disadvantage isn’t always the same thing as being ‘poor’, even if you might expect to find them side by side

UCAS uses a measure called POLAR3 to measure disadvantage, which ranks small areas in the UK according to how many people living in that area are in higher education by the age of 19. There are five different groups. Each group contains about 20% of young people in the UK.

According to this measure, nearly twice as many 18 year olds in the least advantaged areas in England got a place at university—19.5% compared to only 10.7% of their Scottish counterparts in 2016.

Using POLAR3 isn’t ideal to check claims about poverty. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which produces the measure, notes that POLAR3 is only a measure of educational disadvantage relating to participation in higher education, and “is not necessarily an appropriate substitute for other measures of disadvantage”.

And there’s another problem with this comparison.

POLAR3 categories don’t compare the same numbers of people in England and Scotland  

This is a flawed comparison according to UCAS.

Far fewer young people live in the areas defined as least advantaged by POLAR3 in Scotland as do in England (relative to the total number of young people in each nation). This tends to push down the entry rate for these areas in Scotland, making it hard to single out the effect of being disadvantaged.

To be more confident in our comparison, and to focus more on poverty, UCAS suggested another option is to look at the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). Like POLAR3, this ranks local areas into five different groups. But unlike POLAR3 there aren’t fewer Scottish young people in the areas defined as “least advantaged”.

The SIMD also looks at more things than just education, such as income and health.

This measure paints a similar picture. 10.9% of Scottish 18 year olds in the least advantaged areas by the SIMD measure got offered a higher education place in 2016.

So that's roughly the same proportion as the POLAR3 measure for Scotland. And UCAS said it was likely that the equivalent measure for England would be at least twice that (but that more research would be needed to map them over exactly).

So UCAS said on this basis, it’s reasonable to say that the least advantaged 20% of 18 year olds in Scotland seem roughly half as likely to get into university, even if we're not directly comparing like-with-like.

There is another aspect of higher education in Scotland that UCAS figures don’t cover

We’ve been talking about “higher education” entry rates but these figures actually exclude a substantial part of the Scottish higher education system.

About one third of young full time undergraduate study is provided by further education colleges in Scotland.

Many of these Scottish colleges do not use the centralised UCAS system and so don’t provide information for UCAS to include in their entry rates. So in Scotland there is “a substantial section of provision that is not included in UCAS' figures”.

This means that we can use the UCAS figures to roughly compare entry to university between Scotland and England (since UCAS told us most of the provision in England is in universities), but they don’t provide the full story about educational disparity in Scotland.

Young people may not be going to university as much in Scotland but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t studying to a higher level of education. Scotland actually has a relatively high overall participation rate in higher education in UK terms.

These colleges make a difference to comparisons of access  because students from the most deprived areas are over-represented in colleges in Scotland, and underrepresented in Scottish universities, according to the Scottish Funding Council's 2014/15 data.

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