“We are determined to ensure that all students have access to the same educational opportunities” – Our response to the NEON Report

In their recently published report, ‘Universities not for everyone: levelling up and who is missing out on higher education in England’, NEON highlights stark inequalities in opportunity between students in receipt of free school meals (FSM) living in different postcodes across England.

Analysing data from 2005 to 2022, their research found that progress in widening access to higher education has slowed in some areas outside of London, creating stark gaps between the Southeast and the rest of the country.

Writing for WonkHE, NEON Director Graeme Atherton highlights that “the gap between the area with the highest participation rate (Westminster) and the lowest (Swindon) is over 50 percent” for students in receipt of FSM. NEON’s report argues that headlines on the overall increase in the number of students from FSM backgrounds progressing to HE mask regional inequalities and the persistent access gap between the most and least resourced students.

One striking finding is that students from FSM backgrounds living in some areas are nearly 5 times more likely to progress to HE than students from FSM backgrounds living in others. The report ends by questioning why neither major political party has included increasing participation in HE as part of their levelling up plans as the labour market tightens outside of London and university qualifications continue to open up diverse employment opportunities for young people. 

At The Access Project, we work with young people from under-resourced backgrounds across six different regions in England, spanning areas with historically high and low rates of FSM student participation in HE, such as Westminster with a participation rate of 66% (the highest in the country) and Cumbria with a rate of 17.1% (the 9th lowest). Approximately 40% of our students are in receipt of Free School Meals with another 50% from other demographic groups who face barriers to equality of opportunity in HE (for example first in family, Pupil Premium, POLARQ1). In all of our partner schools, no matter where they are, we see a genuine desire amongst students to participate in higher education.

However the regional inequalities in access to opportunities highlighted in the NEON report ring true for many of our students and in-school mentors. Speaking with mentors outside of London, it is evident that young people from under-resourced backgrounds who also live in areas of low progression can struggle to see themselves at some of the country’s best universities.

Following a recent The Access Project university visit to Queens’ College, Oxford from East Lancashire, one mentor reflected that, on the coach journey down, students clearly expressed that they felt university wasn’t for them. However on the return journey, having seen the university themselves, many felt inspired to aim high and apply. Creating opportunities to bridge regions and eliminate gaps in the equality of opportunity is a key part of what we do at The Access Project, working directly with schools and universities to not only support young people but bring the university experience to them. 

Anna Searle, Chief Executive Officer at The Access Project, says: “As we scale to support more young people across the country, we are determined to ensure that all students, regardless of their background or postcode, have access to the same educational opportunities.”

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