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POLAR3: Young participation rates in higher education’ outlines the latest version of the participation of local areas (POLAR) measure, which classifies small areas from across the UK (Note 1) according to their rates of participation by young people in higher education (HE) (Note 2). 

The POLAR classification is important as it is used by HEFCE to assign widening participation funding to institutions in England (Note 3), and in formulating the performance indicators for widening participation (Note 4). POLAR is not just used at the national level, however: institutions make use of the data for targeting their widening participation outreach activity, and as contextual information during the admissions process. It is therefore vital that the POLAR classification is regularly updated by making use of the latest available data.

Participation in HE among young people changes through time. In England participation has increased since the mid-1990s, and particularly since the mid-2000s (Note 5). In Scotland participation has increased over the last five years (Note 6). The level of young HE participation in an area might change for many reasons, for example as a result of government policy, or through changes in the size and social composition of the population. These changes may not be the same in all parts of the UK.

Although primarily a technical update to the classification, the analysis has highlighted matters worthy of further analysis, particularly the differences in participation rates across the different regions of the UK.

Some of the key findings in the report are as follows:

  • The average young participation rate in the UK during the POLAR3 definition period (2005-06 to 2010-11) has increased by two percentage points compared to the POLAR2 period (2000-01 to 2005-06), and currently stands at 34.7 per cent.
  • This increase has not been equally distributed. Areas with the lowest young participation rates (those in quintile 1) under the POLAR3 classification are now on average 2.5 percentage points higher than quintile 1 areas were under POLAR2, while areas with the highest young participation rates (those in quintile 5) are just 1.6 percentage points higher, on average, than quintile 5 areas under POLAR2. This means that participation is increasing more in the areas where it has traditionally been lowest.
  • There is substantial variation in the average young participation rates across different parts of the UK. The North East and Yorkshire and the Humber have lower young participation rates compared with other parts of the UK, while Scotland, Northern Ireland and, in particular, London have higher young participation rates.
  • The young participation rate has increased the most in London, despite the capital already having one of the highest participation rates during the POLAR2 period. The participation rate in London increased by 4.7 percentage points, a proportional increase of 12 per cent. Other areas with large increases in young participation rates include the North East, the North West and the East of England, which had increases of around 2.5 percentage points. Northern Ireland had an increase in young participation of 3.4 percentage points.
  • In contrast, the participation rate in Wales increased by just 0.2 percentage points, while in Scotland young participation fell by one percentage point. In England, the South West had the smallest increase in young participation of any region: an increase of 0.8 percentage points, significantly below the average increase for England of 2.5 percentage points.

 Heather Fry, Director of Education, Participation and Students at HEFCE, said:

‘HEFCE remains committed to widening participation, and this report confirms the progress that has been made since 2004. The POLAR classification is an essential tool, enabling us to ensure that our investment in widening participation is targeted where it is most needed, and helping institutions to target their resources and effort more effectively. In addition to these very practical benefits, the analysis involved in creating the POLAR classifications allows us to understand better the broad patterns of participation across the country, and to identify where further work is needed.’ 

HEFCE has published POLAR 3 data and maps to accompany this report. 

Notes

  1. The UK excludes the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
  2. See HEFCE's web pages about POLAR.
  3. See how we fund widening participation.
  4. See the Higher Education Statistics Agency's performance indicators on widening participation.
  5. See ‘Trends in young participation in higher education: core results for England’ (HEFCE 2010/03).
  6. Participation rates for entrants to Scottish higher education, Scottish Funding Council, March 2012.