Academic Year 2020/21

Widening participation in higher education

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Annual statistics on young peoples' participation in higher education by student characteristics, including eligibility for free school meals, gender, ethnicity, special educational need status, first language and region.

The publication focuses on progression rates to higher education by age 19 for state-funded pupils by personal characteristics at age 15 and for A level students at age 17, by school or college type with breakdowns for high tariff higher education providers.

The publication also includes figures at local authority and regional level by gender, ethnic group, special educational need status and free school meal status.

Figures are also provided on progression to higher education by POLAR disadvantage and Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework rating.

The underlying data, including student numbers, is available to download from the Explore data and files section.

Note the latest data covers A level students who sat their exams in 2018/19 and progressed to HE at age 18 in 2019/20 or age 19 in 2020/21. 

These students would not have been affected by disruption to assessments caused by COVID-19. However , COVID-19 may have influenced the decision of 19 year olds to enter HE in 2020/21 and comparisons with earlier years should therefore be treated with caution.


Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

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About this release

About this release

This statistics publication includes the latest information on measures of Widening Participation in Higher Education. 

These include estimates of progression to higher education (HE) by age 19 for state-funded pupils by personal characteristics and for A level and equivalent students, by school or college type, who progressed to HE by age 19, with breakdowns for high tariff higher education providers.

The pupil characteristic measure cover pupils who attended English state-funded schools and special schools at age 15 who have progressed to HE in UK Higher Education Providers (including Alternative Providers) and English Further Education Colleges. 

The school type measure covers students who attended English schools and colleges at Key Stage 5 at age 17 who have progressed to HE in UK Higher Education Providers (including Alternative Providers) and English Further Education Colleges. 

High Tariff Providers  

Providers are ranked based on the mean UCAS tariff score of their intake and then allocated to low, medium and high tariff groupings with each forming roughly a third of students in the cohort.

More information about HE provider tariff groupings can be found in the methodology document. 

The publication previously used provider tariff groupings produced by HESA. However, HESA no longer produce these groupings. The Department is considering different options for the groupings going forward but in the short term have decided to use the 2019/20 groupings for 2020/21 analysis this year. 

The main publication text focuses on high tariff providers, however, tariff groupings and mean tariff scores for each institution can be downloaded from the Explore data and files section above.

Prior Attainment

Variations in progression to HE by student characteristics can largely be explained by prior attainment. Prior attainment is not accounted for by the measures presented here.

The publication relies on matched data and all figures should be considered as estimates.

Other Publications

There are other sources of information on Widening Participation in Higher Education. These are summarised in the methodology note. 

DfE also produce destination measures showing the percentage of students progressing to further learning at Higher Education Institutions:  

Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 Destinations

The destination measures differ from those presented here as they cover those entered for A levels or equivalent qualifications at ages 16 to 18 as opposed to age 17 for this publication. Destinations figures cover only those who stayed in the education destination for at least the first two terms, whereas this publication covers all entrants except those who dropped out in the first two weeks.

Free School Meals

Free School Meals Cohort  Note that the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals changes over time, which can affect the comparability of the figures. For those turning 19 in 2020/21, 13.2% were eligible for Free School Meals at age 15. This is down from a peak of 14.9% for the 2016/17 cohort. See the methodology note for more information.

Progression to Higher Education

14.2% of state-funded and special school pupils who received Free School Meals (FSM) at age 15 entered Higher Education by age 19 by 2005/06. The rate has risen fairly steadily over time and is now almost double the 2005/06 figure at 28.1% for the 2020/21 cohort. 

The progression rate for pupils not receiving Free School Meals has risen from 33.5% for the 2005/06 cohort to 46.8% for the 2020/21 cohort. 

The gap between FSM and Non-FSM progression rates has fallen for the first time since 2013/14 but remains large historically at 18.7 percentage points.

Other measures of disadvantage  This publication also presents progression rates using the POLAR measure of disadvantage (in the following section). 

This publication focuses on Free School Meal status at age 15. The Department also uses a wider measure to identify disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for pupil premium funding). We are considering adding this wider measure of disadvantage to future releases.

Overall Progression Rates  Figures covering HE progression for all state-funded students can be downloaded from the Free School Meals file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page

Progression to High Tariff Higher Education

2.0% of state-funded and special school pupils who received Free School Meals (FSM) at age 15 entered high tariff HE by age 19 by 2009/10. The rate has increased in the latest year and now stands at 4.5%, the highest figure in the time series. 

The progression rate for pupils not receiving Free School Meals has risen from 9.4% for the 2009/10 cohort to 12.4% for the 2020/21 cohort, the highest figure in the time series. 

The gap between FSM and Non-FSM progression rates was 8.0 percentage points for the 2020/21 cohort, the same as last year.

Progression to Higher Education by Region and FSM Status

Progression to Higher Education

Progression to Higher Education varies considerably by region, in particular for those eligible for Free School Meals. Over half (50.4%) of those eligible for Free School Meals at age 15 in Inner London progressed to HE by age 19 compared to 28.1% nationally and 18.8% in the South West. The gap in progression rates between London and the South West for Free School Meal pupils has increased in the latest year from 27.7 to 28.6 percentage points.

London also has the highest progression rates for those not eligible for Free School Meals at age 15 – well over 50% in both Inner London (61.4%) and Outer London (59.5%) compared to 46.8% nationally. The South West has the lowest progression rate for those not eligible for Free School meals (41.5%).

This pattern is repeated when looking at the overall HE progression rate with progression rates highest in London (57.8%) and lowest in the South West (39.1%). London is the only region with progression rates above the national average of 44.4%.

Progression to High Tariff Higher Education

Progression to high tariff HE providers also varies by region. In London, 9.7% of those eligible for Free School Meals at age 15 progressed to high tariff HE by age 19 – a rate over four times higher than for the South East (2.4%). London also has the highest progression rates for those not eligible for Free School Meals at age 15 – at 17.5%. The West Midlands has the lowest progression rate for those not eligible for Free School Meals (10.0%).

This pattern is repeated when looking at the overall high tariff HE progression rate with progression rates highest in London (16.1%) and lowest in the West Midlands (9.0%). London and the South East were the only regions with progression rates above the national average of 11.4%.

Progression to Higher Education by Local Authority and FSM Status

As seen in the regional figures, London has the highest progression rates and this is particularly apparent for pupils eligible for Free School Meals. HE Progression rates were above 50% for FSM pupils in 12 Local Authorities in London but were below 20% in a quarter of Local Authorities (all outside London).

The gap in progression rates between FSM pupils and non-FSM pupils also tends to be much narrower in Local Authorities in London than in other areas. The progression rate gap tends to be widest in Local Authorities with a small proportion of pupils eligible for Free School Meals.

The pattern is similar when looking at progression to high tariff providers. In 10 Local Authorities in London the progression rate to high tariff HE for Free School Meal pupils was above 10%, compared to 4.5% nationally. Fewer than 1% of Free School Meal pupils progressed to high tariff HE in six Local Authorities. Progression rates to high tariff HE tend to be lowest in coastal regions in the South in particular and the more disadvantaged areas in the North and Midlands.

Historical Data  Figures for earlier years can be downloaded from the Free School Meals - Gap file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

POLAR Disadvantage

POLAR  Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) is produced by the Office for Students (OfS) and classifies small areas across the UK into five groups according to their level of young participation in HE. Each of these groups represents around 20 per cent of young people and are ranked from quintile 1 (Q1) (areas with the lowest young participation rates, considered as the most disadvantaged) to quintile 5 (Q5) (highest young participation rates, considered most advantaged). This has been updated over the years to POLAR2, POLAR3 and POLAR4. This publication presents information using POLAR4.

Progression to Higher Education 

Pupils in the most advantaged quintile were twice as likely to progress to HE as those from the most disadvantaged quintile at 59.2% compared to 29.5% in 2020/21. There has been some narrowing of the gap over time with the progression rate for the most advantaged increasing by 7.9 percentage points since 2009/10 compared to 11.5 percentage points for the most disadvantaged.

Progression to High Tariff HE

The gap widens when looking at progression to high tariff HE. The most advantaged pupils were around four and a half times more likely to progress to high tariff HE than the most disadvantaged pupils in 2020/21. However, this is down from over six times more likely in 2009/10.

Difference from UCAS figures  UCAS publish figures on entry to Higher Education by POLAR4 quintile. The figures differ from those in this publication as they are measuring slightly different things. The figures in this publication relate to state-funded and special school pupils only, whereas the UCAS figures include students who attended other types of school. The UCAS figures relate to acceptances, whereas the figures in this publication relate to those identified as participating in HE, excluding entrants who dropped out in the first two weeks. UCAS figures generally relate to entry to HE at age 18 rather than by age 19.

Gender

Progression to Higher Education

More than half (50.6%) of female pupils entered Higher Education by age 19 by 2020/21 compared to 38.4% of males. The gap in progression rates between males and females rose from 11.4 to 12.2 percentage points between 2019/20 and 2020/21.

Progression to High Tariff HE

12.7% of female pupils entered high tariff HE by age 19 by 2020/21 compared to 10.1% of males. The gap in progression rates between males and females has increased from 2.5 to 2.7 percentage points in the latest year.

Regional and local authority data  Figures at regional and local authority data can be downloaded from the Gender file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

Ethnic Group

This section focuses on five broad ethnic groups: White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Chinese. Figures showing detailed ethnic group as well as regional and local authority data can be downloaded from the Ethnicity file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

Progression to Higher Education

Progression to Higher Education varies significantly by ethnic group. Chinese pupils were the most likely to progress to HE by age 19 at 81.0% in 2020/21, whilst White pupils were the least likely to progress to HE at 39.7%. Black pupils have seen the greatest increase in the proportion entering HE – from 44.1% in 2009/10 to 62.1% in 2020/21.

Progression to High Tariff HE

Chinese pupils were also by far the most likely to progress to high tariff HE by age 19 at 40.7% in 2020/21, whilst White pupils were the least likely to progress to high tariff HE at 10.5%. This is the first time in the series that White pupils were the least likely to progress to high tariff HE.

Free School Meals, Gender and Ethnic Group

This section focuses on detailed ethnic group by free school meal status and gender. Figures by region can be downloaded from the Free School Meals, Gender and Ethnic Group - Region file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

Progression to Higher Education

Progression rates were highest for Chinese pupils regardless of gender or free school meal eligibility. Chinese females who were not eligible for free school meals had the highest progression rate at 84.9% in 2020/21. Indian, Black African and Bangladeshi pupils also had consistently high progression rates regardless of free school meal status and gender. The lowest progression rates were for Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy Roma pupils.

Progression rates for White British pupils who were eligible for free school meals were much lower than most other groups with rates of 21.4% for females and 13.6% for males in 2020/21. The progression rate for White British males who were eligible for free school meals has increased to the highest level in the time series after falling slightly in the previous two years. The rate for females has increased every year since 2011/12 and is also at the highest level in the time series.

Progression to High Tariff HE

Progression rates to high tariff HE providers were highest for Chinese pupils regardless of gender or free school meal eligibility. This was particularly apparent for pupils who were eligible for free school meals where Chinese pupils were more than three times as likely as all other pupils to progress to high tariff HE.

Black Caribbean pupils were among the least likely to progress to high tariff HE. The progression rate of 5.4% is less than half the overall national figure (11.4%). The progression rate for females has increased to 7.3% in the latest year, whilst the rate for males has fallen from 3.6% to 3.5%.

Special Educational Needs (SEN)

SEN Support  From 2015, the School Action and School Action Plus categories have combined to form one category of SEN support. Extra or different help is given from that provided as part of the school’s usual curriculum. The class teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) may receive advice or support from outside specialists. The pupil does not have a statement or education, health and care plan.

Statement of special educational needs (statement) or Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)  A pupil has a statement or EHCP when a formal assessment has been made. A document is in place that sets out the child’s need and the extra help they should receive.

Progression to Higher Education

The progression rates for pupils with Special Education Needs lag well behind those for other pupils. Just 8.7% of pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or Statement of SEN progressed to HE by age 19 by 2020/21 compared to 22.5% of pupils on SEN Support and 48.6% for pupils with no SEN. Progression rates increased for all groups in the latest year.

The progression rate for pupils on SEN support had the biggest proportional increase and is at the highest level recorded in the time series.

Progression to High Tariff HE

Just 1.1% of pupils with and EHCP/Statement and 3.6% of those on SEN support progressed to high tariff HE in 2020/21. In comparison, the progression rate for other pupils was 12.8%.

Regional and local authority data  Figures at regional and local authority data can be downloaded from the Special Educational Needs file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

First Language

English as an additional language  A pupil is recorded to have English as an additional language if they are exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English.

Progression to Higher Education

A majority of pupils with a first language other than English progress to HE by age 19. 59.2% of pupils with a first language other than English progressed to HE by age 19 by 2020/21 compared to 41.6% of pupils with English as a first language. The progression rates have increased by 8.4 percentage points and 9.4 percentage points respectively since 2009/10.

Progression to High Tariff HE

Pupils with a first language other than English were also more likely to progress to high tariff HE by age 19 at 13.4% in 2020/21 compared to 11.0% of pupils with English as a first language. 

Children in Need

Children in Need   A child in need is defined under the Children Act 1989 as a child who is unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or their health or development will be significantly impaired without the provision of services, or the child is disabled. 

This publication presents figures for Children in Need at 31st March for state-funded and special school pupils who were 15 at the start of the academic year. Comparable data is only available from 2015/16 onwards.

Note that Looked After Children are a subset of Children in Need.

Progression to Higher Education

13% of Children in Need at age 15 progressed to HE by age 19 by 2020/21 compared to 45% of all other pupils. The progression rates for both groups are up by 1 percentage point since 2019/20.

Progression to High Tariff HE

The progression rate to high tariff HE for Children in Need was 2% in 2020/21. The rate is the same as last year and is six times lower than the 12% of all other pupils who progressed to high tariff HE. 

Looked After Children

A child is looked after by a local authority under the Children Act 1989 if they fall into one of the following: is provided with accommodation, for a continuous period of more than 24 hours [Children Act 1989, Section 20 & 21]; is subject to a care order [Children Act 1989, Part IV]; or is subject to a placement order. 

This publication presents figures for Children looked after continuously for 12 months or more at 31st March for state-funded and special school pupils who were 15 at the start of the academic year.

Note that Looked After Children are a subset of Children in Need.

Progression to Higher Education

Just 13% of pupils who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more at 31st March 2017 progressed to HE by age 19 by 2020/21 compared to 45% of all other pupils.

Progression to High Tariff HE

The progression rate to high tariff HE for children looked after continuously for at least 12 months increased to 2% (the highest figure in the time series), whilst 11% of other pupils progressed to high tariff HE in 2020/21. 

The Department also publishes figures on entry to HE in the Children looked after in England including adoption publication. The progression rates are lower than presented here as those statistics relate to care leavers known to local authorities. This publication uses a different cohort – children looked after continuously for 12 months or more at 31st March for pupils in state-funded and special schools who were 15 at the start of the academic year – and uses matched census data to identify HE participation by age 19 rather than for a single age.

A level students - School Type

Changes to Key Stage 5 cohort 

There has been continued reform to KS5 qualifications and methodological changes in the way the KS5 cohort is counted. It is not possible to directly compare figures for HE progression rates from 2017/18 with earlier years and further changes in recent year have added further volatility to the time series.

Due to these changes, this publication focuses on HE progression for A level students in the main text of the publication, where the cohort is more stable over time. Progression figures for the wider KS5 cohort are still available for download to enable comparison of progression rates by school type within years, however it is not possible to create consistent comparisons over time. 

Data can be downloaded from the School Type file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

Changes to A level cohort  

In the latest three years the cohort includes students who took a single AS level (as well as those combining one AS level with vocational qualifications). We would expect these students to have lower progression rates than in the past when the threshold for inclusion in school performance measures was at least one A level. The change has most impact on the state-funded students, who are more likely to study AS levels. 

Figures from 2017/18 onwards are therefore NOT directly comparable with earlier years.

A Level Students

Progression to Higher Education

87.3% of pupils who took A levels in Independent schools progressed to HE, 7.5 percentage points higher than for pupils in state-funded schools/colleges (79.7%). The gap has decreased from 8.9 percentage points in 2019/20.

Progression to High Tariff Higher Education

The gap however remains large when focusing on those progressing to high tariff HE. 57.3% of pupils who took A levels in Independent schools progressed to high tariff HE, 31.2 percentage points higher than those in state-funded schools/colleges (26.0%). This gap is down slightly from 31.8 percentage points last year.

State-funded School Type  Figures for Selective State and Other State schools can be downloaded from the School Type file in the Explore data and files section at the top of this page.

Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF)

Teaching Excellence Framework  The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) was introduced to assess, recognise and reward high quality teaching and student outcomes in higher education. Universities are awarded a rating of Gold, Silver or Bronze taking into account factors such as student satisfaction, employment outcomes and retention rates. 

This publication includes the latest TEF rating held by providers as at June 2022. There are 179 providers covered by the publication with a TEF rating. Of these 35% are rated Gold, 44% Silver, 12% Bronze and 9% with a provisional award.

HE students who attended non-selective state schools were less likely to study at HE providers with a Gold award than those who attended selective state and independent schools.

41.4% of HE students who attended non-selective state schools studied at HE providers with a Gold award in 2020/21 compared to 52.1% of those from selective state schools and 51.8% of those from independent schools.

The comparison is much closer when looking at study at HE providers with Gold or Silver awards. HE students who attended selective state schools were the most likely to attend Gold or Silver providers at 93.7%. This compares to 91.4% for those who attended independent schools and 90.1% of those who attended non-selective state schools. However, this partly reflects the fact that students who attended independent schools were more likely to study at providers who do not currently have a TEF rating.

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Methodology

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Official statistics

These are Official Statistics and have been produced in line with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.

This can be broadly interpreted to mean that these statistics are:

  • managed impartially and objectively in the public interest
  • meet identified user needs
  • produced according to sound methods
  • well explained and readily accessible

Find out more about the standards we follow to produce these statistics through our Standards for official statistics published by DfE guidance.

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