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The new study looks at the achievements of 130,000 students from universities and colleges across England up to August 2011 – the largest student group ever examined in this type of research [Note 1]. It confirms the findings of earlier HEFCE studies on this subject and reveals new and in some cases unexpected insights.

Ethnicity

  • There is significant variation in degree outcome for students from different ethnicities [Note 2].
  • In all, 72 per cent of White students who entered higher education with A-level grades of BBB gained a first or upper second class degree. This compares with 56 per cent for Asian students, and 53 per cent for Black students, entering with the same A-level grades.

Gender

  • Female students are more likely to achieve an upper second or higher than male students with the same prior educational attainment [Note 3].

Disadvantage

  • Students from disadvantaged areas tend to do less well in higher education than those with the same prior educational attainment from more advantaged areas [Note 4].

Schooling

  • State school students tend to do better in their degree studies than students with the same prior educational attainment from independent schools [Note 5].
  • Students who have remained in the state school sector for the whole of their secondary education tend to do better in their degree studies than those with the same prior educational attainment who attended an independent school for all or part of their secondary education.
  • Degree outcomes are not affected by the average performance of the school that a student attended [Note 6]. 

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said:

 ‘This HEFCE study makes an important contribution to the growing evidence base on achievement in higher education. We are in a unique position at HEFCE to be able to link school data and higher education data together in this way to give a comprehensive, sector-wide picture.

 ‘The study presents a robust and independent set of findings to inform discussion and debate, and to stimulate action. Further work – by HEFCE, by the sector and by Government – will be needed to understand why these effects are happening, and what sorts of interventions will be most effective in bringing about positive change.’

Notes

  1. The report examines in detail all 18 and 19 year-old entrants domiciled in England holding three or more A-levels who entered a full-time first degree in 2007-08, and their higher education achievements up to August 2011.
  2. Students classifying themselves as White consistently achieve higher degree outcomes than students recording other ethnicities. This confirms findings from a previous HEFCE study, ‘Student ethnicity: Profile and progression of entrants to full-time, first degree study’ (HEFCE 2010/13).
  3. For example, of students who enter with A-level grades of AAB, 79 per cent of females go on to gain an upper second or higher, compared with 70 per cent of males. This difference is because of the proportion achieving upper seconds. The same proportion (20 per cent) of female and male students achieve first class honours.
  4. We classified the postcodes students live in immediately prior to entry, using either the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI), which measures in a local area the proportion of children under the age of 16 who live in low income households, or Participation of Local Areas (POLAR), which measures in a local area the proportion of young people who go onto higher education. We found that on either measure, those from the most disadvantaged areas have consistently lower higher education degree outcomes than those with the same prior educational attainment from other areas.

    Applying IDACI, 77 per cent of those from the most advantaged areas with ABB at A-level go on to gain a first or upper-second degree. This figure drops to 67 per cent when ABB students from the most disadvantaged areas are considered.

  5. This difference is less marked in women, those with the highest A-level achievement, and those who study at universities and colleges with high entry tariffs, but even in these categories it remains statistically significant.

    This improved performance is not affected by the type of state school. Students from community schools, foundation schools, sixth form colleges and voluntary controlled and aided schools all tend to do better than their independent school counterparts with the same prior educational attainment.

  6. Specifically, a student from a low-performing school is not more likely to gain a higher degree classification than a student with the same prior educational attainment from a high-performing school.

    For example, regardless of ‘school type’, a student gaining A-level grades of AAB from a school in the highest 20 per cent of schools in the country has the same likelihood of gaining a first or upper second as a student gaining AAB from a school in the lowest 20 per cent of schools in the country. In both cases, the proportion gaining a first or upper second is 79 per cent.