Measures of disadvantage ‘not effective’ for university admissions

Nearly half of students flagged as disadvantaged by POLAR data are not from poor families, says Sutton Trust report

Commonly used markers of disadvantage are “not effective” at identifying low-income students when it comes to university admissions, The Sutton Trust reports.

The charity, which is calling for universities to have better data to target access work and contextual admissions, says measures that use “proxies” based on local areas do not effectively identify low-income students.

They could even discriminate against certain groups such as those from BAME backgrounds or those students with young mothers as they could live in areas where poverty and great wealth are found side by side.

The claims come from a new report from the Sutton Trust, that looks at data from over 7,000 young people in the Millennium Cohort Study, exploring how different measures of disadvantage relate to long-term family income.

The report – by Professor John Jerrim of UCL Social Research Institute – aims to identify the most effective measures of disadvantage – particularly to support universities in their outreach work and in using contextual admissions to widen access.

Of the nine measures examined in the research, the most effective indicator of childhood poverty is the number of years a child has been eligible for free school meals.  However, universities don’t have access to verified data on free school meal eligibility and rely on students self-reporting their eligibility.

Universities commonly use POLAR (Participation of Local Areas) data in their admissions processes, but the latest report shows that this measure is a very poor indicator of family income, in part because it was never designed to measure socio-economic disadvantage. Almost half (48 per cent) of children classified as disadvantaged by POLAR are not from a low-income background.