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How do we find out if and why particular groups are underrepresented at our universities?

Published: 17/11/2016

Second blog post in a new series from Senior Policy Adviser Chris Brill on the underrepresentation of particular groups in higher education and how these inequalities should, and are, being tackled.

ChrisB website newAre particular groups underrepresented? Considering the national picture

There are positive stories when looking at national statistics on representation of particular groups in higher education. The representation of disabled students in the last five years has increased, from 8 per cent (81,725) in 2010/11, to 10.6 per cent (101,035) in 2014/15; the proportion of BME students has increased, from 18.4 per cent (371,075) to 21.0 per cent (377,225) over the same period. However, we should be careful not to interpret positive national trends as evidence that there aren’t issues at our institutions.

  • Positive aggregate stories can mask differences within these aggregate groups. For example the significant increase in the number of students disclosing as experiencing a mental health difficulty has occurred at the same time as a decrease in the number of students disclosing a hearing impairment.
  • Considering only one characteristic in isolation, as this national pictures does, can mask underrepresentation. Helpfully, UCAS have made available data on applicants and acceptances by provider, gender and ethnicity, and by subject group and gender and ethnicity, which complements the student data disaggregated by multiple identities in our forthcoming ECU statistical release. Intersections between ‘class’ and equality characteristics are more readily being reported, as outlined the Social Mobility Taskgroup As the report warns, however, care must be taken in singling out particular areas for focus; for example, although UCAS analysis highlights white working class boys as having the lowest entry rates to higher education, there is also an issue of a similar magnitude with disadvantaged white girls and mixed race boys.
  • Although individual institutions contribute to national demographics, they do not necessarily reflect them. Stark underrepresentation’s and positive trends may be replicated at a local level, but this is not a necessity.

Local quantitative evidence gathering is therefore needed to determine what is an issue for your own institution, and where there are possible barriers. This is not in short supply. We recommend that institutions analyse their participation rate, and application, offer and acceptance data, looking for any differential rates associated with protected characteristics. Considering this information can highlight whether further exploration should focus on increasing the numbers of applicants and/or improving offer and acceptance rates.  Analysis could consider relationships between student characteristics, (for example gender and participation in specific subject areas) and intersections between protected characteristics and socioeconomic status. Analysing who takes up particular recruitment activities, for example open days, and demographics on subject choice at school may also be useful.

Why are particular groups underrepresented: considering a range of barriers

To find out why there is local underrepresentation will require an understanding of the range of barriers which different groups face when accessing higher education.

In our engagement with institutions in the UK, we advocate that universities consider a range of barriers which we have grouped as follows:

  • societal barriers and stereo types: for example how communications influence subject choices and work experiences
  • information gaps: for example the availability of careers information advice and guidance, and how influencers such as school staff, friends and relatives develop understanding of courses or career opportunities
  • experience and qualifications: for example how requirements preclude those who have had a lack of opportunities/exposure to particular subject options or work experiences
  • admissions process: for example whether interview processes are used and appropriate, whether university staff have consider possible unconscious bias
  • curriculum/belonging: for example do courses assume particular knowledge, do they provide opportunities to draw on students’ interest, what types of academic support is available

The advantage of considering a broad range of barriers is it allows a move away from a focus on individual deficits to structural or systemic barriers. It allows people to consider national research, but also understand their local context, and consider things they hadn’t previously.

This is not an exhaustive grouping, but a helpful start to engage a fuller discussion on why particular groups may be underrepresented. Through these discussions, further possible barriers may be identified. Evidence gathering should be flexible to include these, and be responsive to the ideas of those that institutions are engaging with. Again, universities have a range of opportunities to gather this; analysis of quotes from student satisfaction surveys, evaluations of previous initiatives/current activities, consultations exercises, and focus groups with current and prospective students, Equality impact assessments or relevent policies and, complaints/discrimination claims.

Further resources

A recent ECU publication, outlines statistical techniques to use, with tips on analysis and dealing with small numbers. Our forthcoming statistical report will be available shortly at

On 14 December 12:30 – 13:30 we have organised a lunchtime webinar to discuss underrepresentation in higher education.  Register now to attend.