You need cookies enabled


You need cookies enabled

Executive summary


1. This report gives details of a classification of small areas across the UK, based on young participation rates in higher education (HE). This classification is a new iteration of the existing Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) classification. Known as POLAR3, this new classification supersedes its predecessor, POLAR2. 

2. This report explains the ways in which POLAR3 differs from POLAR2. It also examines how young participation has changed between the periods covered by each classification. 

3. The report will be of benefit to new and existing users of POLAR who want to understand further some of the more technical aspects of the classification. The report will also be of benefit to those involved in policy as the new classification highlights some of the ways that young participation in HE has changed since POLAR2 data were published.

Key points

General comments

4. The propensity of young people to participate in HE varies across the UK. Understanding why this variation exists is important, and a prerequisite for this is to understand how participation varies geographically.

5. Previous work by HEFCE focused on this issue as part of our broader programme of work on young participation. The POLAR classification analyses the geographical variation in participation by grouping small areas (2001 census area statistics wards) across the UK according to their level of young HE participation. The classification is publicly available, and is used by HEFCE to allocate funding to promote and facilitate widening participation. It is also used by the wider HE sector to measure widening participation performance and to help target outreach activities, and by some institutions during the admissions process.

6. The previous POLAR classification, POLAR2, used information about cohorts of young people who would have entered HE aged 18 or 19 between 2000 and 2005. However, more recent work by HEFCE has shown that participation in HE has grown among more recent cohorts of young people, increasing from 32 per cent for the 2004 cohort to 36 per cent for the 2009 cohort. By making use of the latest information on students who enter HE aged 18 or 19, we have now updated the POLAR classification to a new version, POLAR3.

7. This report focuses on how changes in the HE participation rates of young people in the 2005 to 2009 cohorts have affected the composition of POLAR quintiles. These changes, and their effect on average young participation rates, are considered at the UK, country, and English regional levels.

Increase in young participation between POLAR2 and POLAR3 periods

8. The average young participation rate during the POLAR3 definition period was 34.7 per cent. This is an increase of two percentage points over the average rate during the POLAR2 period. 

Greater equality in average participation rates across quintiles

9. The two percentage point increase has not been equally distributed. Areas with the lowest young participation rates (those in quintile 1) under the POLAR3 classification are now 2.5 percentage points higher (a proportional increase of 19 per cent) than quintile 1 areas were under POLAR2. Meanwhile areas with the highest young participation rates (those in quintile 5) are just 1.6 percentage points higher than quintile 5 areas under POLAR2 (a proportional increase of 3 per cent). The average participation rates across the quintiles are therefore closer together than they were previously.

10. Despite these changes, large differences in participation rates remain across the POLAR3 quintiles with people from quintile 5 areas being on average 3 to 4 times more likely to go into HE than those from quintile 1 areas.

Continued substantial geographical variation in young participation across the UK 

11. 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 participation rates compared with other parts of the UK. These regions have among the highest proportions of their areas falling, and of their young population living, in quintile 1. Meanwhile Scotland, Northern Ireland and, in particular, London have higher young participation rates. These parts of the UK also have among the highest proportions of their areas and young population in quintile 5.

Differential changes in young participation across the UK since POLAR2

12. 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. London has had the largest net reduction of areas in quintiles 1 and 2, a proportional fall of nearly 50 per cent, and the largest net increase in areas in quintiles 4 and 5, a proportional increase of 16 per cent. 

13. Other areas with large increases in young participation rates include the North East, the North West and the East of England, which had percentage point increases of around 2.5 per cent. Northern Ireland also had an increase in young participation of 3.4 percentage points. 

14. 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, far below the average increase for England of 2.5 percentage points. 

The majority of small areas remain in the same quintile

15. Despite the changes described above, the majority of areas (66 per cent) are found to be in the same quintile under the POLAR3 classification as they were under the POLAR2 classification. 19 per cent of areas moved into a lower quintile, while 15 per cent moved into a higher quintile. Nearly all areas which moved quintiles did so into an adjacent quintile, with the majority being accounted for by movements into and out of quintile 3.

Action required

16. No obligatory action is required following this report but we recommend users of the POLAR2 classification to now use the POLAR3 classification instead.

Date: 3 October 2012

Ref: HEFCE 2012/26

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges, Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions, Heads of universities in Northern Ireland

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Widening participation, Policy development

Enquiries should be directed to:

Alan Williams, tel 0117 931 7276, email