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Differences in degree outcomes: Key findings

March 2014 | ref: 2014/03

To:

Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions
Secondary education providers

Of interest to those responsible for:

Planning, Admissions, Widening participation, Advice to applicants to higher education
This report looks at the outcomes of the cohort of English-domiciled A-level students who entered full-time degree courses in 2007‑08. We examine the extent to which a student’s background affects their chance of obtaining an upper second or first class degree. The report updates and extends previous HEFCE research which analysed the cohort of 1997-98 entrants. 

Executive summary

Purpose

1. This report looks at the outcomes of the cohort of English-domiciled A-level students who entered full-time degree courses in 2007-08. We examine the extent to which a student’s background affects their chance of obtaining an upper second or first class degree. The report updates and extends previous HEFCE research which analysed the cohort of 1997-98 entrants.

Context

2. Prior educational attainment is the main criterion used by higher education institutions (HEIs) to decide whether to make offers to or accept applicants. However, HEIs, further education colleges (FECs) and other HE providers also examine contextual data. Their aim is to set attainment against the background of the circumstances in which it is achieved. Information of this kind can be used to identify applicants with relative educational disadvantage, and it may be possible to make lower offers to such applicants on the basis that their potential is greater than their grades indicate. Specifically, a number of institutions consider what the average A-level achievement is at an applicant’s school (‘school performance’), and whether the school is in the state or independent sector (‘school type’).

3. In 2003 and 2005 HEFCE published statistical studies examining whether ‘school performance’ and ‘school type’ can safely be used to identify applicants with educational disadvantage and hence greater HE potential than their grades suggest. These studies found that students with similar prior attainment from independent schools do consistently less well at the end of their degree studies than students from other schools and colleges. This updated analysis confirms our earlier finding.

4. We have extended our analysis to consider other issues by including factors that were not explored in these previous studies. These include ethnicity, gender, additional schooling effects, GCSE attainment and postcode-based measures of disadvantage.

5. This analysis looks across the whole sector, tracking outcomes for the entire young A-level entrant 2007-08 cohort (130,000 students). This eliminates potential sampling biases. It also allows a robust and comprehensive examination of questions that smaller or institution-specific studies are unable to answer.

6.We have not attempted to identify the specific causes behind the findings. We can show, however, that some suggestions about differences in HE degree outcomes, while plausible, are not supported by the evidence. For example, it might be supposed that outcome differentials in HE were the direct result of the type of HEI the student attends, rather than the school they attended or some other aspect of their educational or socio-economic background. But the modelling techniques employed in the report eliminate this possibility: they make explicit allowance for differences in the performance of students in different HEIs. We can therefore be confident that our findings are not the result of institutional effects.

Key points

7. The study looks at all young students with three or more A-levels starting a full-time first degree in the academic year 2007-08, recording their degree achievements up to July 2011. The key findings of the study are as follows.

Students with better A-levels do better in higher education

8. More than 80 per cent of students with grades AAB or above gain a first or upper-second degree; approximately 50 per cent or less of those with CCC or lower do so.

The proportion of students who gain a first or upper second in their degree studies has risen since 2004

9. 63 per cent of students taking up a full-time degree in 2007 obtained a first or upper second. The corresponding figure for those who entered in 2004 was 61 per cent.

There is significant variation in degree outcome for students from different ethnicities

10. Students classifying themselves as White consistently achieve higher degree outcomes than students recording other ethnicities. This confirms findings from previous HEFCE studies. In all, 72 per cent of White students who entered higher education with BBB gained a first or upper second. This compares with 56 per cent for Asian students, and 53 per cent for Black students, entering with the same A-level grades.

Female students are more likely to achieve an upper second or higher than male students with the same prior educational attainment

11. For example, of students who enter with A-level grades AAB, 79 per cent of female students go on to gain an upper second or higher, compared to 70 per cent of male students. This difference is because of the proportion achieving upper seconds. The same proportion (20 per cent) of women and men achieve first class honours.

Students from disadvantaged areas tend to do less well in higher education than those with the same prior educational attainment from more advantaged areas

12. 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 HE degree outcomes than those with the same prior educational attainment from other areas.

13. 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.

Independent school students enter higher education with better A-level grades than those from state schools

14. The average A-level attainment of students from independent schools is ABB, whereas for those from other schools and colleges it is BBC.

State school students tend to do better in their degree studies than students from independent schools with the same prior educational attainment

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

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

In all levels of A-level achievement, state-schooled entrants to HE tend to do better in their degree studies than independently schooled counterparts with the same prior GCSE attainment

17. This gap in degree success between those from the state sector and those from independent sector widens as students’ GCSE attainment falls. The gap is very small in those with the highest GCSEs: 73 per cent of state school students with the equivalent of eight A grades at GCSE go on to gain a first or upper second in their degree studies; this proportion drops to 69 per cent for independent school students (a gap of 4 percentage points) with the same GCSE profile. The difference becomes significantly greater even in those with the equivalent of eight B grades at GCSE: 52 per cent of state school students gain a first or upper second, compared with 43 per cent of independent school students (a gap of 9 percentage points).

Students who have remained in the state school sector for the whole of their secondary school 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

18. A small proportion (3 per cent) of the degree entrants investigated studied for their GCSEs at an independent school and then moved to a state school for their A-levels. In this group, 53 per cent of those who gained BCC at A-level obtained a first or upper second in their degree studies. This compares with a figure of 58 per cent of the students who gained BCC wholly in the state sector.

There is a relationship between a student’s level of attainment at A-level relative to the average of the school and his or her potential for success at degree level

19. When students with the same prior educational attainment are considered, those with A-level grades that are better than the average for their school tend to attain more highly in higher education than similar students with grades that are lower than the average for their school. On average, an entrant who gains BBB at a school where the average A-level attainment is CCC will do better in higher education than an entrant who gains BBB at a school where the average attainment is AAA.

Degree outcomes are not affected by the average performance of the school that a student attended

20. 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.

21. For example, regardless of ‘school type’, a student gaining 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.

Enquiries should be directed to:Quantitative Analysis for Policy Team, e-mail qapt@hefce.ac.uk, or Mark Gittoes, tel 0117 931 7052, e-mail m.gittoes@hefce.ac.uk

Page last updated 23 April 2014

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