Are white, working class boys the least likely to go to university?

28 July 2016
What was claimed

White, working-class boys are less likely than other groups to go on to university.

Our verdict

This is correct for England, using research for university joiners in 2010 and 2011 and looking at the least well-off students.

If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

Theresa May, 13 July 2016

Less well-off white boys in England are, on average, less likely to attend university than minority ethnic groups, according to research done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies published last year.

There’s no agreed upon definition of 'working class', and this research for England is the closest we've seen to answering this kind of question.

This research refers to university enrolment in the academic years 2010/11 and 2011/12. While this was before before the increase in tuition fees, new data suggests white students' attendance has only fallen further behind since then.

The lowest of any ethnic group

About 33% of white British school students enrolled in university in the academic years 2010/11 and 2011/12. That is the lowest enrolment rate of any ethnic group—next lowest is Black Caribbean students at 37%. By comparison the highest performing groups were Chinese students (76%), Indian students (67%) and Black African students (57%).

The IFS research is based on university enrollment prior to the 2012 tuition fees increase in England, so we don’t entirely know how different the picture looks now.

Recent research suggests white British attendance has fallen since then. According to King's College London research, the total number of white first-year undergraduates fell by almost a third in 2012/13, the academic year following the rise. And the same paper concludes the effect of the tuition fees rise was smaller for minority ethnic groups.

There’s no agreed definition of what ‘working class’ means in this context. The IFS provides a useful breakdown of attendance by ‘socio-economic level’: a combination of student’s eligibility for free school meals and the average multiple deprivation figures for their local area.

What this shows is that of the least well-off fifth of white Britons, only 12 in 100 attended university. Of the next least well-off fifth, the number was 20 in 100. Both figures are lower than the equivalent band for any other ethnic minority.  

A gender gap  

The IFS report says that girls are on average 8% more likely than boys to attend university. This gender applies to white British students too: in 2010/11, 159,665 white girls enrolled in university, compared to 129,495 boys; the following year, the figures were 170,210 girls to 136,425 boys. This suggests white British boys from less well-off backgrounds are less likely to attend university than other groups.

There are some important caveats to the IFS research. Firstly, it excludes the six per cent of English students who, according to the Independent Schools Council, attended fee-paying schools in 2011. (The current figure is seven per cent.)  

Secondly, it's based on English state-educated students who took their GCSEs in 2008 and enrolled at university either as 18 year olds in 2010 or 19 year olds the following academic year. In other words, it excludes those who started later or are yet to start.  

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