Access to university for working-class students: the rural/urban divide

Vanessa Todman, Head of Student Experience Research |

Despite great efforts and progress in recent years, access to university is still unfair. More underrepresented students than ever are going to university, but you are still six times more likely to go to a selective university if you are from the most represented postcode[i]. There also exists a disparity between BAME and White students, with just 38% of White pupils attending university in comparison to 64% of Asian and 60% of Black pupils. Most stark, and likely to be a factor in these figures, is the difference between rural and urban participation. In Inner London, 48% of students who receive free school meals will enter Higher Education, but this compares to only 18% of pupils on Free School Meals (FSM) from the South West. In fact, London students who receive FSM are more like to attend university than non-FSM students outside of London[ii].

To begin to really better understand this ourselves, we recently conducted a small number of pilot interviews with A-level students which brought home to us this rural/urban divide in university participation.

We wanted to explore how we might help A level students make a more informed choice

Our “Understanding Aspirations” project was set up as a result of focus groups we conducted to explore why the majority of the white working-class females studying in King’s were clustered on our nursing courses. The focus groups suggested that this group needed more support when making university and course choices (read our blog on this here). As a result, we have now started a research project with 16-18 year old students to explore this further.

We recently conducted our initial pilot interviews for this project in Ilford and rural Somerset, both close to two of the social mobility cold spots which will be our future focus. We only spoke to eleven students in this initial set of interviews, all in their first year of A-Levels, so the findings aren’t representative, or generalisable but they are very interesting and lay some groundwork for what we will explore further.

We were struck by the difference between London and the rural South-West

Recruitment was tricky. Our Research Ethics board requested that participants from specific groups should volunteer, rather than be recruited. We therefore stipulated to schools that they should advertise the opportunity to take part in these interviews by saying that, while we were interested in speaking to white working-class girls in particular, we would speak to any willing participants over 16 who put themselves forward. We were further inspired to recruit in this way by Beka Avery, who suggested at a recent conference that universities should work with broad cohorts and test differential impact in their evaluation, rather than ask schools to recruit narrowly defined groups (you can read her recent blog on the subject here).

This approached had unexpected benefits. Targeting white working-class girls to sign-up did indeed turn out to be almost impossible for the school based in East London,  and as a consequence we gained insight we might not otherwise have got; the white working-class student we spoke to in London appeared to have much more in common with her Black and Asian London-based peers then she did the students in rural Somerset of the same ethnicity. This fits with findings of Donnelly and Gamsu, that it’s no longer sufficient to merely think ‘nationally’[iii] when thinking about higher education access.

Are students weighing up success versus fun?

The students from the two areas were quite different. Broadly: the London girls appeared to have given their future more thought and were already planning the steps they needed to take to succeed; the Somerset students seemed more relaxed and willing to follow their interests.

As we dug deeper, we found that the apparent confidence of the London students was mostly innocent bravado (one student said she had considered being a vet, but then revealed she ‘didn’t like animals’) and based on what they knew others to be doing. This was in sharp comparison to the rural Somerset students, who openly told us they had not given as much thought to what they wanted to do after A-levels and that they were still reeling from the shock of the jump from GCSEs. Where they did have a plan, enjoyment was a much bigger factor. They also had a wider range of subject choices, including oceanography, journalism and Ancient China.

In London, more than one student wanted to be a clinical psychologist, which requires both a Master’s and a Doctorate,  though it wasn’t clear that they were aware of this. In general our impression was that it was ambiguous whether they had a plan more because they felt a general pressure to have one, rather than because they had properly thought it through, and this is something we will explore further in future interviews. Even so, the London students did appear to be ahead of the game in some respects. There was much more awareness that work experience would put them ahead in university applications (though also misconceptions, such as that studying a STEM subject would look better than a humanities subject on a UCAS application form) and they had far more questions for our widening participation staff member about the application process. The desire to right the wrongs experienced by family members, an aspect of working-class aspiration chronicled by Reay [iv], also came up in conversation.

Family experience influences decisions, they go with what they know

When we explored why the London students were considering certain universities it was often because a family member went there. In our conversations, older siblings were often the inspiration for their plans, both for course and university. This is likely to put pressure on siblings, and indeed the only older sister we spoke to in London told us she needed to go to university so her sister would follow her. A desire to stay close to family was expressed in both groups, but for the Somerset students particularly, a desire to stay close to family was a key factor in university choice, with a focus on Wales or the South-West, typically Bristol or Bath Spa. When London students discussed considering a London university it was generally in the context of saving money by living at home. Fear of debt came up for both groups, and this was also often linked to not wanting to put pressure on their families.

This focus could potentially be limiting the options of both groups (acknowledging that, at the very least, the prospective oceanography student had a point in dismissing London), and there was little awareness that their experience could be quite different in universities within the South-West[v]. Where we did get questions from the Somerset students, they often focused on what they should do if they didn’t meet the A Level grade requirements. If this happens, staying home will mean fewer options in clearing.

Two schools, eleven interviews, a lot of insight that we’re keen to test further

On the basis of these interviews we’re looking to add to our number of locations, and broadening the pool of students that we speak to. At first glance, it looks like working-class girls often (but not always) like to stay at home, or at least follow family, and tend to make decisions about their future based on that choice, and that this provides the more ethnically diverse London working-class students better options than the rural, more commonly white students. The London students also seemed more aware of what they were up against, which made them savvier, but also (we felt) a bit more stressed. These pilot interviews highlighted to us that when we talk about the working-class experience we are often talking about intersections between class and place, as well as race. And as such, that in the context of a student deciding which university to go to in particular, the lack of spatial mobility associated with this group means that we cannot make generalisations across different urban and rural locations.

Hopefully further research will help us design an intervention to help both groups.

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[i] OfS, ‘Gap in participation at higher-tariff providers between the most and least represented groups’ (


[iii] Donnelly, M. Gamsu, S. (2017) Regional structures of feeling? A spatially and socially differentiated analysis of UK social im/mobility

[iv] Reay (2017) Miseducation Bristol: Policy Press

[v] Bathmaker, A.-M., Ingram, N., Abrahams, J., Hoare, A., Waller, R. and Bradley, H. (2016) Higher Education, Social Class and Social Mobility: The Degree Generation, London: Palgrave Macmillan

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  1. Engaging the ‘Hard to Reach’ : The Importance of Using a Wide Range of Methods – Behavioural Insights in Higher Education
  2. The importance of project pilots – reflections from our online decision-making module – Behavioural Insights in Higher Education

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