The proportion of black British school leavers going to university in England has fallen for the first time in a decade, just as the government prepares to limit the courses available for young people wanting to study in higher education.
The Department for Education figures show that efforts to recruit more students from some ethnic minorities and disadvantaged groups – including white British pupils receiving free school meals – stalled or went backwards, according to the most recent data, even as the overall proportion of young people enrolling as students continued to rise.
While the other main ethnic groups all saw a year-on-year increase in the proportion at university by the age of 19, the rate of black British students fell from close to 60% in 2018 to 59% in 2019, the first reverse after a decade of progress.
The figures also show that despite the rapid expansion in students taught by the UK’s most prestigious universities, some groups continue to struggle to gain access: only 5% of British students from black Caribbean families gained places in “high tariff” universities, compared with more than 10% of all students.
Graeme Atherton, the director of the university access charity Neon HE, said the decline in black student enrolments was likely the result of a shift in priorities by England’s universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), meaning that universities have put less funding into working with school pupils.
Atherton said the OfS recently emphasised the attainment gap and student retention, “so universities didn’t include increasing the number of black students in their access and participation plans, apart from high tariff institutions, where it’s being driven by a public discourse pressuring them to have more black students”.
Among disadvantaged students, there were fewer enrolments to courses by young white British men on free school meals (FSM), the proportion dipping for the first time in seven years to just 12%. Disadvantaged white British boys and girls remain the least likely group to progress to higher education, other than children from Gypsy, Traveller or Irish Traveller communities.
Only 2% of black Caribbean and white British boys eligible for FSM gained entry to selective universities. Overall the “progression gap” between school leavers on FSM and others widened to the biggest gap for 12 years. Nearly half of those not receiving FSM went into higher education, while only one in four on FSM did so.
The new figures come after ministers recently declared there was “too much focus on getting students through the door” into university, while the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said it was an “absurd mantra” for 50% of all young people to go into higher education.
The government is preparing a series of policies on higher and further education, “rebalancing” funding and students towards skills and vocational training, as well as limiting what it sees as “low value” courses with poor rates of graduate employment.
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, said earlier this month: “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense.”
Atherton said the government’s rhetoric could result in fewer students from poor backgrounds going to university. “If we start to see strong messages being given to universities and particularly to schools that higher education is not a great priority, that will see these gaps widen,” Atherton said.
A spokesperson for the DfE said: “We must ensure that all those who have the ability, attainment and desire to pursue higher education are given high quality options that will lead to the good graduate jobs that will transform their lives.”