In England, the proportion of young people who go to university after completing their A levels varies significantly across regions. In particular, figures from HEFCE show that the proportion of young people from London who enter university is significantly higher than in other regions. At the student level studies have shown that the most important factor influencing admission to university is level of educational achievement. It seems unlikely, however, that variation in the level of educational achievement can entirely explain the higher likelihood of entering university for young people who live in London. The figure below shows the relationship between the proportion of young people going to university and the proportion of school children with 5 GCSEs at grade A to C including English and Maths for parliamentary constituencies in England using data for 2011. The regression line shows that there is a significant positive relationship between participation in higher education and levels of prior achievement. There is significant variation around the regression line, however, suggesting that factors other than prior achievement might be important in influencing the proportion of young people in an area who go to university. In particular, the majority of parliamentary constituencies in London plot above the regression line showing that they have levels of young participation which are higher than that predicted on the basis of prior levels of achievement,
There are a range of factors, such as proximity to a large and diverse number of higher education institutions, which might explain why young people from London are more likely to go to university than those in other regions with similar levels of academic achievement. There is a strong geographical pattern, however, to higher education participation within London. The figure below shows the geographical distribution of areas across London which have higher and lower numbers of admissions than expected on the basis of their levels of GCSE achievement. The figure shows that there is a pronounced East/West divide in participation with many of the areas of London which have significantly higher than expected proportions of young people going to university in West London (e.g. Brent, Ealing and Harrow) and many of the areas with lower than expected proportions of young people going to university are in East London (e.g. Havering, Bexley and Bromley). The geographical differences in university participation correspond closely to variations in the proportion of young people in each area from ethnic minority backgrounds. Several recent studies have shown that young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to aspire to go to university than those from White backgrounds and it seems likely that the higher proportion of young people going to university in London may, in part, be related to ethnicity.
In order to investigate this further I have recently been using survey data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) to examine regional variations in young people’s attitudes to higher education. The work I have been doing is exploratory and has been using information provided by the cohort member at wave 1 in 2004, when they were in year 9, and at wave 7 in 2010, two years after they would normally have taken their A levels. The figure below shows differences between London and remaining regions in young people’s aspirations to go to university at wave 1, GCSE results at age 16 years and actual admissions to university at wave 7 separately for White and non-White cohort members.
The first panel shows the variation in the proportion of respondents who stated that they were either very or fairly likely to go to university at wave 1 by ethnic group and region. The figure shows that respondents from non-White backgrounds were more likely to state that they intended to go to university than those from White backgrounds among both respondents who lived outside of London and those who lived in London. The figure also shows, however, that in both non-White and White groups, there is a regional difference of around 10 percentage points in the proportion of young people who intend to go to university with respondents who live in London more likely to intend to go to university than those in remaining regions.
The second panel shows the corresponding variation in GCSE results by ethnic group and region. The figure shows that there is little variation in GCSE results by ethnicity with non-White and White respondents who lived outside of London and non-White and White respondents who lived inside of London having similar GCSE results. There was also no difference in the GCSE results of White respondents between London and remaining regions, however, non-White respondents who lived in London achieved significantly better GCSE results than those who lived outside of London. Finally, the third panel shows the proportion of respondents who were at university at wave 7 by ethnic group and region. The figure shows that respondents from non-White backgrounds were more likely to be at university than those from White backgrounds both among respondents who lived outside of London and those who lived in London. In each ethnic group, respondents were more likely to be at university if they lived in London with the proportion of respondents at university around 10 percentage points higher in London than in remaining regions.
Overall, therefore, the results suggest that the higher aspirations of non-White and White respondents and the relatively good GCSE scores of non-White respondents in London might be able to explain the higher proportion of young people who go to university in London. This finding can be interpreted in several different ways. The simplest interpretation is that the higher aspirations of young people who live in London directly lead to the higher proportion of young people from London going to university. This type of explanation doesn’t give any reason, however, for why young people in London should have higher aspirations to go to university than in remaining regions. It is also possible to view aspirations as being a consequence of region, however. From this perspective, regional differences including opportunities to go to university and the wider economic situation help shape young people’s aspirations to go to university, while the proportion of young people going to university in turn influences both the economic competitiveness of a region and the educational aspirations of younger generations. Circular processes of this type are a common cause of geographical differences and the cumulative nature of change means that they can lead to durable differences in the characteristics of areas. The important point for policies aiming to increase the number of young people going to university in different regions is to recognise that the wider environment has an influence on young people’s aspirations so that a one-size fits all approach is unlikely to be useful.