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Report: UK students from lower socio-economic background end up at ‘less prestigious’ universities regardless of their grades

Up to one in four students from lower socio-economic backgrounds take courses at ‘less prestigious’ universities despite having the grades for ‘more selective’ institutions, according to UCL research. Researchers analysed data from over 130 000 students and found a significant ‘mismatch’ in the UK higher education system.

In order to examine the extent of ‘mismatch’ between the quality of courses and students’ results, the researchers assessed the quality of a course based on the median A-level (and equivalent) exam results of the students studying on the course as well as the average earnings of previous graduates of the course. Researchers found 15% of students were over-matched and 15% were under-matched using the course quality measure, and 23% over-matched and 23% under-matched based on earnings.

The school attended accounted for much of the ‘mismatch’ among students of lower socio-economic background, most likely due to influential factors such as peers, school resources and the information, advice and guidance offered. However, factors such as the application system, which is based on predicted rather than actual grades, could also come into play. In addition, this student group is typically more likely to apply to courses with easier access in terms of grade requirements, rather than taking a risk on courses that may be harder to enrol.

When it came to the location of universities, disadvantaged students were more likely to attend universities close to home, but those who do so are worse matched than richer students who attend universities close to home. High-attaining disadvantaged students going to universities near home were more likely to attend a post-1992 institution, whereas high-attaining advantaged students staying near home were more likely to attend a Russell Group university.

Student data were taken from administrative data, including the National Pupil Database, from pupils who started university between 2008 and 2009, as well as survey data from the Next Steps study provided by UCL.

The report