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University Access - what happened during COVID-19 - the impact on the diversity of the 2020 undergraduate intake

Students crop

A new study led by Dr Angus Holford for the ESRC Research Centre for Micro-Social Change, has used recent data to examine the extraordinary circumstances around university applications during 2020 and the impact this may have had on access and widening participation.

The research is part of a major ESRC project Mind The Gap led by Professor Birgitta Rabe, to examine the consequences of COVID on educational inequalities.

The research was published in this MiSoC Explainer, launched on 30 November, at an event discussing reform of higher education admissions organised by NEON, the National Educational Opportunities Network, and discussed by Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Unit, Chris Millward from the Office for Students, John Cope from UCAS and Angela Nartey from UCU.

The research team looked at UCAS applications from 2017 to 2020 to pinpoint the stages of the application process that contribute to the widening or narrowing of gaps in access in normal years and investigated the impact of COVID-19 on the last two stages in the 2020 application cycle.

Prospective students from low socio-economic status (SES) or ethnic minority backgrounds who apply to university are less likely to be accepted into high tariff universiteis than higher SES or White students. Some of these gaps can be explained by prior educational performance up to age 16 which also affects choices of qualification taken between 16 and 18. However, large differences in students’ application decisions, universities’ offers and acceptances by ethnicity and SES remain even after accounting for any observed pre-application differences in attainment.

The study found that Black and South Asian students historically are much less likely to be accepted on to their ‘firm choice’ on results day than their White student counterparts, but among those who missed out they were more successful at finding a place through Clearing. The exceptional circumstances of the 2020 ‘Algorithm’ and then ‘Teacher Assessed Grades’ instead of exam results increased rates of acceptance on to firm choices by a similar amount for all these groups, but meant that there were far fewer places available in Clearing. The use of ‘Teacher Assessed Grades’ therefore still harmed access to university for ethnic minority students relative to White.

Read our Explainer - University Access: the role of background and COVID-19 throughout the application process