Ethnicity appears to have a greater effect on students' performance at university than gender, disadvantaged background or the type of school attended, according to research published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, last week.
The analysis shows a significant link between factors such as ethnicity, gender and school type and achievement in higher education.
But evidence suggests that the proportion of students from low-income backgrounds at universities is rising, despite the impact of higher tuition fees from 2012-13.
In the most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers reviewed the achievements of 130,000 students from universities and colleges across England up to August 2011, revealing the significant effect of factors such as ethnicity, gender, disadvantage and school type on the chances of students obtaining an upper second or first class degree.
While disadvantage and gender were found to have significant effects, the impact of ethnicity was striking.
There is significant variation in degree outcome for students of different ethnicities with 72% of white students who entered higher education with three grade B A-levels graduating with a first or upper-second class degree. Only 56% of Asian students and 53% of black students with the same A-level grades emerged with a similar 'good' degree.
Measured by A-level scores, students from disadvantaged areas tend to do less well in higher education than those with the same prior educational attainment from more advantaged areas, according to the research.
Using the postcodes students lived in immediately prior to entry, researchers found that, while 77% of students from the most advantaged areas with an A and two B grades at A-level go on to gain a first or upper-second degree, only 67% of students with similar grades from the most disadvantaged areas do so.
The variation is less marked among women, those with the highest A-level achievement and those who study at universities and colleges with high entry tariffs. But even in these categories, background remains statistically significant.
Gender differences were evident, with female students more likely to achieve an upper second or higher than males with the same A-levels.
For example, 79% of females who entered with two As and a B went on to gain an upper second or better, compared with 70% of males. The difference is accounted for by the higher proportion of females achieving upper seconds. The same proportion (20%) of female and male students achieved first class honours.
School type has little impact
One key finding of the analysis is that attending an independent school does not appear to enhance university performance. State school students tend to do better in degree studies than students with the same prior educational attainment from independent schools.
"Students who have remained in the state school sector for the whole of their secondary education tend to do better in their degree studies than those with the same prior educational attainment who attended an independent school for all or part of their secondary education.
"Degree outcomes are not affected by the average performance of the school that a student attended," the report says.
"Regardless of 'school type', a student gaining A-level grades of AAB from a school in the highest 20% of schools in the country has the same likelihood of gaining a first or upper second as a student gaining AAB from a school in the lowest 20%...
"In both cases, the proportion gaining a first or upper second is 79%," the report adds.
The most reliable indicator is A-level performance. The researchers found that more than 80% of students with two As and a B or above gain a first or upper-second degree, compared with approximately 50% or fewer of those with three Cs or less.
Professor Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of HEFCE, said: "The study presents a robust and independent set of findings to inform discussion and debate, and to stimulate action.
"Further work - by HEFCE, by the sector and by government - will be needed to understand why these effects are happening, and what sorts of interventions will be most effective in bringing about positive change."
Disadvantaged student numbers rising
Data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that the proportion of students at English universities from disadvantaged backgrounds rose from 10.2% in 2011-12 to 10.9% in 2012-13 - the first year of higher fees. The data can be seen here.
Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, which is tasked with helping universities to promote and safeguard fair access for people from under-represented groups, said: "I am pleased to see rising proportions of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education, both young and mature.
"This means we're moving closer to a student body that reflects the wider population rather than just those who were born into a particular social group.
"Today's performance indicators are the first that measure the diversity of England's universities and colleges under the new student finance system, and they confirm what has already been indicated by UCAS statistics: that the introduction of the GBP9,000 (US$15,000) fee cap in 2012-13 did not deter people from low-income backgrounds from going to university.
"This reflects the work and investment of universities and colleges in their outreach programmes."
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