‘Please Mind the Entry Rate Gap’

Students from the most advantaged backgrounds are ten times more likely to go to King’s College London, according to the latest UCAS figures. In 2017, only 3.5% of the 18-year olds intake came from the least advantaged areas. The College in turn claims to be on track to becoming the most inclusive Russell Group institution by 2029. Who is lying?

The UCAS 2017 End of Cycle Report shows that the College’s entry rate for those from privileged districts is 10.1 times higher than for their less advantaged peers.

Whilst this ratio is 2:1 overall in the UK, at 10 universities the ratio between 18-year-olds from lowest higher education participation areas and those from highest participation areas is above 9:1. With Imperial College London occupying the top position, King’s gets the bronze medal, with the third highest most to least advantaged ratio in the UK.

According to an analysis published by TES, the Times Higher Education’s sister publication, The College also has the lowest percentage of students from the most disadvantaged POLAR areas, a classification which categorises districts according to the number of young people going into higher education, in Russell Group. In 2017, this percentage was 3.5: out of the 1,975 18-year olds intake in 2017 only 70 came from the lowest “POLAR” quintile.

However, the College aims to become the most inclusive Russel Group institution by 2029. Despite its low scores in the reports, King’s Widening Participation programme yields promising results: ‘We consistently meet the milestones set out in our Access Agreements with the Office for Fair Access and in the past five years have made significant progress in recruiting students from state schools (up from 70% to 75%), students from BME backgrounds (up from 38% to 48%) and areas of high levels of deprivation (which includes POLAR targets).’, says a spokesperson from the College.


What explains the discrepancy between the College’s low performance in the UCAS and TES reports, and its own optimistic figures?

The POLAR classification is the prime suspect. POLAR figures depend greatly on the university’s recruitment area; as London has few districts in the lowest POLAR quintile, the fraction of students coming from there is bound to be small, leading to a skewed most to least privileged ratio.

Better indicators for disadvantage include the ACRON data, which categorises the UK population by examining socio-demographic factors as well as consumer behaviour, or personal background considerations. When taking these into account, we discover significant progress in tackling entry rate gaps which matches King’s ambitious goals. According to a spokesperson from the College, ‘Between 2013-14 and 2016-17 our proportion of students from the highest levels of urban disadvantage (according to the ACORN dataset) increased from 18.6% to 24.5%.’ The College also targets ‘students who are first in their family to go to university, disabled students, young carers or care experienced and those living independently’, the spokesperson added.

Moreover, King’s is also running K+, a programme aimed at supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds in applying to university. This helped 1,500 students from targeted schools be admitted at the College between 2013-14 and 2016-17. Consequently, ‘Applicants who have completed one of our schemes, are care experienced or who are flagged via POLAR/ACORN are identified as part of the admissions process for additional consideration’, says a spokesperson from the College, an approach ‘identified as a feature of good practice in the most recent QAA Review.’

Besides the peculiarities of the POLAR measurement, an analysis of living costs may also prove insightful to understanding the College’s low scores in the reports. King’s estimates undergraduate living expenses at approximately £1,000-£1,200 per month, a figure significantly higher than in non-London universities: for example, Manchester University estimates students’ living expenses for 40 weeks at £9,255, or roughly £925 per month. Therefore, London living costs may discourage students from worse off areas to apply to study in the city.

But how does one tackle this? Creating more bursaries, grants and scholarships would undoubtedly increase and widen participation. And indeed, what immediately comes to mind, is the lowering of sky-high rent levels of university halls, which box many out of the market.