Social mobility and universities

8 December 2017
What was claimed

More people from deprived backgrounds are going to university than ever before.

Our verdict

Correct. In 2016 the proportion of 18 year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas going to university was the highest on record for England, Scotland and Wales. It’s the second highest level it has ever been in Northern Ireland.

What was claimed

Around 40% of students at universities such as Oxford went to private school. 7% of the population go to private school.

Our verdict

Correct, around 44% of young, full-time Oxford undergraduate students in 2015/16 had gone to an independent school. Around 7% of all English school pupils went to an independent school in 2017.

“when you look at the top of almost all the major professions and look at universities like Oxford, that are taking in more kids from state school, but I think it’s still around 40% from private school and only 7% of the population go to private school, I think social class remains as big an issue in the UK as it’s ever been.”

Richard Bacon, 7 December 2017

“There are more people from deprived backgrounds going into universities than ever before.”

Bernard Jenkin MP, 7 December 2017

It’s correct that private school pupils are still disproportionately represented in top professions and among University of Oxford undergraduates.

It’s also the case that there are more 18 year olds from disadvantaged areas going to university than ever before in England, Wales and Scotland, according to UCAS figures. In Northern Ireland it is the second highest on record. On this measure, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and advantaged pupils across the UK has narrowed in the last ten years, although it is unchanged in the last year.

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A disproportionate number of private school pupils go to Oxford

Around 44% of young, undergraduate full-time students attending the University of Oxford in 2015/16 went to an independent school, according to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Looking at the third most selective universities in England, around 23% of state school pupils who took A levels or equivalent qualifications went to these in 2014/15, compared to 65% of pupils at independent schools.

This gap is the largest it has been since 2008/09 (as far back as these figures go). The gap is smaller looking just at pupils who took A levels.

Across the whole of England 7% of students were attending an independent school in January 2017. That’s the same proportion as it’s been since at least 2003.

An analysis of ‘leading people’ in the UK by the social mobility think tank the Sutton Trust found that private school pupils were disproportionately represented at the top of many of the UK’s professions.

It found that in 2015 around three fifths of top doctors went to private school, almost three quarters of top military officers and top judges and around a third of UK educated FTSE 100 CEOs. Around half of the senior civil service and top journalists were privately educated. We’ve looked more at these figures here.

Looking at the latest intake of MPs following the June 2017 election the Sutton Trust also found that 29% were privately educated.

The proportion of disadvantaged young students going to university is increasing

In 2016 the proportion of 18 year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas going to university increased for all countries in the UK. It increased to the highest on record in England (almost 20%), Wales (18%) and Scotland (11%). In Northern Ireland it was at 16%, the second highest recorded level.

Compared to 2006, the gap between the proportions of disadvantaged and advantaged students going to university has narrowed across all four countries. In the past year, the gap has stayed broadly the same.

Scotland’s figures shouldn’t be directly compared to those from the rest of the UK because there is a substantial chunk of higher education provision in Scotland not included in these figures.

Figures for 2017 will be published next week.

Disadvantage here is measured according to the rate of participation in higher education by young people in each area of the country, so the most disadvantaged areas are those with the lowest rates of participation by young people. There are a number of other ways to measure disadvantage and we’ve looked into them in more detail here.

Looking at pupils in England receiving free school meals, an increasing proportion are going to university by age 19, according to figures from the Department for Education. An estimated 24% of English pupils receiving free school meals had gone to university by the time they were 19 in 2014/15—the highest on record.

The gap between students not receiving free school meals and those who do has remained at around 17-18 percentage points over the last eight years, based on these figures.

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