Why increasing university access is only the start

We’ve made impressive steps in increasing access to university, but it’s increasingly clear we need to do more to help low-income students even after they arrive at university.

Share Graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds earn 20% less than those from advantaged backgrounds Share on X Increasing access isn’t enough. We need to improve opportunities for low-income students Share on X Donor-funded programmes ensure disadvantaged students can make the most of their time at UoM Share on X

Access to university has been increasing. In 2016, young people in England were 31% more likely to attend university than in 2006, and despite fears around rising tuition fees putting off disadvantaged students, this increase in access has been even greater for the most disadvantaged students.

The gap between students from the most advantaged and the least advantaged areas attending university is the lowest it’s ever been, and students who received free school meals are 81% more likely to attend university in 2016 than they were in 2006.

It’s a situation which is improving, but we still have work to do. Our initiatives such as the Manchester Access Programme work to ensure the brightest students can attend university regardless of their economic background.

However, what has become clear is that simply increasing access to university is not enough.

Unequal outcomes

According to a recent report from the Bridge Group, students from the least affluent backgrounds have much worse graduate outcomes compared to those from the most affluent.

For example, the IFS found that the earnings of graduates 10 years after graduation were 25% higher for those from high-income backgrounds compared to those from low income backgrounds. Even if we control for institution attended and subject chosen, the gap is still 10%.

After graduation, disadvantaged students are 7% less likely to find graduate-level employment than their more advantaged peers.

In addition to these students facing worse outcomes after graduation, they’re also far less likely to even reach that point. First-year dropout rates for disadvantaged undergraduate students was 8.8% in 2014-15, nearly double the rate of 5% of those from the wealthiest backgrounds.

All this paints a bleak picture. At Manchester, we strongly believe that achievement in life should be based on your talent and hard work, not on your economic background.

So, what can we do about it?

Identifying the cause

First, we need to identify the reasons for these gaps. Why do students from less affluent backgrounds seem to benefit less from university than those from more affluent backgrounds?

Clearly the answer is complex, and the individual reasons hard to unpick, but we can pull out a few clear contributing factors.

One of the main factors is the difference in rates of participation in various ‘value-added’ activities while at university.

Activities such as doing an internship, studying abroad, or joining an extra-curricular society, all increase graduate employment.

For example, around 45% of internships will result in a full-time graduate job, and participating in extra-curricular activities increases your employability according to over 70% of employers.

Studying or training abroad perhaps makes the biggest difference. Those graduates who have done some sort of international study or work experience are half as likely to face long-term unemployment in their lives.

However, students from lower-income backgrounds are much less likely to do any of these activities compared to their more well-off peers.

When we see that students from high-income backgrounds are around 40% more likely to do an internship, about 21% more likely to do some extra-curricular activity, and more than twice as likely to do some form of activity abroad, this can go some way to explain the differences in graduate outcomes.

So, to solve this issue, we need to discover why lower-income students aren’t taking on these opportunities.

One of the main reasons is, quite predictably, money.

Many of these ‘value-added’ activities have some sort of cost associated with them. Membership of an extra-curricular society often carries with it a membership fee. Studying and gaining experience abroad costs money for travel and accommodation etc.

Even internships and work experience carry a cost. Considering that a third of graduate internships are unpaid, those students who are unable to borrow money from well-off parents to support themselves through the internship are often unable to take advantage of these opportunities.

The other reason is awareness of the importance of this type of activity.

Those students from less well-off backgrounds may not receive as much career advice during their time at school and may not realise the importance of all these activities by the time they arrive at university.

A Manchester Solution

So, what are we doing to help?

Right from the start, and with the support of generous donors, we’re helping disadvantaged students get ready for the world of work.

As part of the Manchester Access Programme (MAP), 16-17 year olds from low income families in Greater Manchester are, among other things, given advice from the careers service on how to get ahead.

Once they’re at university, MAP students receive a donor-funded Undergraduate Access Scholarship of £1,000 per year, which, along with our other scholarship programmes, means that we offer one of the most generous support packages in the UK.

This financial support means students from low-income families are able to undertake many of the activities that will improve their graduate outcomes: joining extra-curricular societies, supporting themselves through unpaid work experience, or even studying abroad.

But it’s not just financial support that we offer. Through the Manchester Network, we put current students in touch with influential alumni, who can offer support, guidance, or even work experience and full-time jobs.

Our Global Graduates programme, which was highlighted as an area of good practice by the Bridge Report, gives students from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to travel abroad and meet influential alumni in locations such as New York, Paris, and Hong Kong.

While there, these students learn about different working cultures, gain contacts in multinational companies, and receive invaluable career advice.

The Global Graduates programme provides these students with a hugely valuable experience, and would not be possible without the help of donor funding.

All of this can help to bridge the gap, but there’s more to do. We believe that all students, regardless of their economic background should be able to access these activities that will improve their graduate outcomes, and with your continued support, we can achieve this goal.

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