Poorer children in the North East are almost 70% less likely to go to university than richer classmates, official figures suggest.
Around a fifth of 15-year-olds across England who receive free school meals went on to higher education in 2010/11, compared with more than a third of those not getting the dinners, according to new statistics published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
But in the North East that number plummets to barely one in 10, with County Durham seeing one of the lowest levels of disadvantaged pupils going on to study a degree.
Alan Milburn, the Government’s social mobility tsar, said it was clear that if universities were increasingly determined to help make Britain socially mobile, it was time for leading institutions to “up their game”.
But academics say the blame cannot be laid solely at their door. Newcastle University’s acting academic registrar, Lesley Braiden, said the reasons why young people choose not to go to university were “many and complex.”
“The financial circumstances of a family can certainly play a part,” she said, “but there are many other factors, such as family experience of higher education, individual ability, aspirations and ambitions, perceptions about debt and the costs of university, peer pressure, self-confidence, family expectations and circumstances and the school and community context.
“One of the most important factors determining whether an individual will progress to university is attainment at school or college, particularly at age 16, since those who do not study A levels or other equivalent qualifications are unlikely to go to university.”
And to solve that, Durham University’s professor of education and well-being, Stephen Gorard, said more needs to be done at primary school level.
“The crucial thing when looking at applications to universities is not how many applied, but why many may not have had the qualifications to allow them to.
“This isn’t a case of aspiration - you simply can’t tell someone without any GCSEs that they should try and go to Oxbridge. So you need to solve it in primary school - and my view is that state funded education should aim to reduce those ‘background’ factors.
“One obvious thing may be to mix children from different parts of society more, and also look at literacy and numeracy - as if at 11-years-old children are behind in that then their chances of getting to university are slim. .”