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New research looks at University performance gap

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New research looks at University performance gap

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New research by Claire Crawford shows poorer students do not fare as well at University.

University students from less-affluent backgrounds are more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate with a first- or upper-second-class degree than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. This is true even amongst those on the same course who arrived at university with similar grades.

These are the main findings of new research conducted by Claire Crawford, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent research organisation.

The gap persists even when students take the same courses and arrive at university with similar grades.

The research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust that funds education research with the goal of improving social well-being.

The report, ‘Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class’, examined data on all English students who started university in the UK between 2004-05 and 2009-10. The research found:

  • Poor students are more likely to drop out of university within two years of entering; less likely to complete their degrees within five years and less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than their more advantaged peers – comparisons of students from the poorest 20 percent with the wealthiest 20 percent shows.

Students from poorer backgrounds may need additional support at university to enable them to succeed.
  • The gaps diminish but remain significant even when comparing students who arrived at university with similar grades and studied the same course show. Those from the poorest fifth are still more likely to drop out of university, less likely to complete their degrees and less likely to graduate with a first or a 2:1 than the wealthiest fifth.

  • These findings starkly contrast with findings that emerge when comparing the university performance of students from low- and high-performing schools. Students from the worst-performing schools tend to do better at university than students from the best-performing schools in comparisons of students who took the same course and who arrived at university with the same prior attainment.

The research findings have important policy implications. Among them:

  • A key reason why students from less-advantaged backgrounds don’t so as well at university is that they had lower attainment at school previously. However, those from poorer background don’t do as well as their more-affluent peers with even with the same prior attainment – a finding that suggests that students from poorer backgrounds may need additional support at university to enable them to succeed.

  • On average, students from worse-performing schools go on to outperform students with similar grades from better schools. However, the same is not true of students from poorer backgrounds with the same grades as those from richer backgrounds. University admissions policies may therefore wish to focus on school characteristics rather than individual or neighbourhood measures of disadvantage to identify students who, on average, are likely to go on to perform well.

The findings stand in contrast to other research showing that students from worse-performing schools do better at university than their peers from better-performing schools.

"Our research highlights that there are large differences in university outcomes by socio-economic background, a substantial proportion of which can be explained by differences in attainment earlier in the education system", Crawford said.

"While improving the attainment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at school is likely to aid their performance at university as well, we find non-negligible differences in university outcomes between students from different socio-economic backgrounds at the same university, studying the same subject, and arriving with the same grades."

"This suggests that universities may wish to focus on improving the progression and performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as widening access."