Row of university graduates holding their scrolls. Image: Thinkstock

Are more poorer students going to university?

The OU's Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, looks at the numbers behind claims in the Budget that more students from poorer backgrounds are going to university.

This blog post was originally written for Universities UK.

Open University Vice-Chancellor Peter HorrocksStanding at the dispatch box to deliver his budget yesterday, the Chancellor made a significant statement about student numbers.  We were told that record numbers of students from low income backgrounds are applying to universities.  I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the figures involved to see what sort of picture they actually paint.

Let’s start with the often-reported claim that the rise in tuition fees has not deterred people from applying to go to university.  This is only true in respect of full-time students.  There has been a 41% decline in undergraduates studying part-time in England over the last five years.  Prior to the rise in tuition fees, the proportion of undergraduates studying part-time in England was one third; it has now fallen to one fifth.

Taking part-time and full-time numbers together, across the whole UK, there has been an overall decline of 20% in first year total UK undergraduate numbers between 2009/10 and 2013/14, a fall of 174,000 students.

Next there’s the Chancellor’s claim that a “record number” of students from low income backgrounds are going to university.  The challenge here is twofold: how to define poorer students and how to find data from across the sector to support such a claim.  We don’t know for certain, but it’s possible the Chancellor was basing his claim on the number of UCAS applications by 18 year-olds for full-time study living in poorer areas, which has gone up.  However, when you look at the total number of students from poorer neighbourhoods actually starting their degrees in England since the introduction of the new fee regime, you get a different picture.