Insights into geographical inequalities in higher education participation | AUA Blog

Geographical variations in rates of higher education [HE] participation have long been recognised. In 1997, the Dearing Report referenced research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England which showed that ‘the probability of a young person entering a higher education institution is strongly related to the nature of the student’s immediate neighbourhood’. Today, much outreach activity is directed at ‘the most educationally disadvantaged localities in England’ (Raven, 2018, 391). For the government funded National Collaborative Outreach Programme [NCOP], as well as for many HE providers, these are areas where HE participation is not only low in comparative terms but ‘lower than expected given (level 2) GCSE attainment’ (Office for Students, 2019).*

Neil Raven
Independent Educational Consultant

The study

Whilst the emphasis for NCOP partnerships is on interventions that address these spatial inequalities in participation, a greater understanding of these neighbourhoods could help to enhance the effectiveness of outreach efforts. To this end, Make Happen – the Essex-based NCOP – commissioned me to conduct some research into county’s target wards. Amongst the sources utilised in this study was an early version of the POLAR classification scheme (POLAR 2), which include figures on the percentage of local adults with an HE-level qualification. Also consulted was the Office for National Statistics’ NOMIS datasets. These provide details from the 2011 census of the occupations and qualifications of residents for every English census ward.


Analysis of these sources revealed the distinct character of the county’s target wards and, by extension, those in many other parts of the country. Typically, these districts returned the lowest proportion of adults with university-level qualifications. In the original study, ratios were used to highlight the differences. These revealed that ‘whilst more than 1 in 3 adults residing in high-participation areas possessed a higher-level qualification, the comparable [ratio] for target wards was less than 1 in 6’ (Raven, 2018, 404-5). Based on these findings, it would appear that a young person’s prospects of coming across someone in their neighbourhood with first-hand experience of university would be significantly lower in a target ward.

Similarly, the same areas returned the smallest percentages in managerial and professional occupations. Indeed, these areas were three times less likely to possess residents in higher and intermediate managerial and professional occupations than high participation neighbourhoods.

Converting these differences into ratios provides some indication of the likelihood that young residents will ‘encounter locals with graduate-level jobs’. Accordingly, 1 in 3 adults in high participation areas were in managerial and professional roles compared with less than 1 in 8 for target wards (Raven, 2018, 405-6).

Recommendations for practice

The same study went on to consider various outreach responses advocated by the practitioners who were interviewed as part of the investigation. In revisiting these, two suggestions seem to have particular resonance given these findings. The first concerns the role that undergraduates can play in working with young people from areas where few locals can offer first-hand accounts of university life. The second relates to a recommendation that is also made by Wiseman et al (2017, 14). This concerns providing ‘young people [with] access to a wide range of graduate employers and employees’, especially in careers they are unlikely to encounter during ‘everyday life’ and in their ‘local communit[ies]’.


For more information about this study, or to share your experiences of working in such neighbourhoods, please contact the author.

* An earlier version of this article appeared in the FACE (Forum for Access and Continuing Education) e-bulletin.


GOV.UK. 1997. Higher Education in the learning society (The Dearing Report)

Office for Students. 2019. The National Collaborative Outreach Programme End of Phase 1 report for the national formative and impact evaluation

Raven, N. 2018. Understanding areas of educational disadvantage: an examination of outreach target wards in the county of Essex, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 23:3, 391-413

Raven, N. 2017. The progression challenge. Factors influencing low rates of young higher education participation in a sample of districts across Essex. Unpublished report prepared for the Essex Collaborative Outreach Network.

Wiseman, J., E. Davies, S. Duggal, L. Bowes, R. Moreton, S. Robinson, T. Nathwani, G. Birking, L. Thomas., and J. Roberts. 2017. Understanding the Changing Gaps in Higher Education Participation in Different Regions of England. Department of Education.

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