Gender divide, ethnicity, family wealth and age: The trends of the university admissions process

Posted on: 19 Jan 2016

Barnaby Lenon, Chair of the Independent Schools Council, offers his view on the university admissions process…

In December UCAS published its report on university entry in 2015 and identified a number of interesting trends.

The gender divide

About 40% of young men apply to university (36% going), while 52% of young women apply (46% going). This gap between the sexes is widening year by year. Why is this?

The main reason is that girls get better GCSE results than boys. In the classroom they seem to be keener to please the teacher than boys. They score higher marks in coursework because they work harder and are dissatisfied with themselves if the quality is low. Girls are less confident than boys. If you give boys and girls a test, boys tend to overestimate how well they have done, girls underestimate. So girls will feel the need to work hard more keenly than boys.

Ethnicity and geography

Of the 532,000 students entering UK universities in 2015 88% were from the UK, 5% from the EU and 7% from non-EU countries. Universities are growing because the government has removed the cap on places, but entry to the best universities is harder than ever.

Looking at applications and acceptances by ethnicity, white ethnic group comes bottom. Immigrant families are more likely to appreciate the link between exam results and a good job. Because of this the parents push their children harder.

Family wealth

There has been a big increase in the number of pupils from disadvantaged homes going to university, but mainly to the low tariff universities. The increase has occurred for three reasons. Firstly, universities have spent huge sums on outreach activities, persuading school-age pupils to apply. Secondly, all universities have set themselves the target of taking more pupils from disadvantaged homes, and these targets are monitored by the Office of Fair Access. Thirdly, universities are taking more students and this makes it easier for those from the bottom 15% economically (those on free school meals) to find a place.

However, the relatively poor GCSE and A level results of those from disadvantaged backgrounds makes it harder for them to find places at high tariff universities. This is the challenge the nation now faces – better results for able pupils from lower socio-economic groups.


Interestingly, 18-year olds are only half of those from the UK entering university. 20% are aged 19, 18% are 21-25 and 10% are over 25.

Focusing back on ISC independent schools, the story of university admissions in 2015 was encouraging.

Our own research shows that 2015 was the best-ever year for university entry for ISC schools.

The ISC Census showed that over 92% of pupils went on to university, with the figure from all schools nationally around 40%. The offer rate (% of all applications receiving an offer, remembering that most pupils apply for five universities) for HMC and GSA schools rose to 80.6%, 78% for Russell Group universities. 40% of students at Oxford and Cambridge are from our schools.

There are several reasons for this. Most important is the excellent A-level grades of our students. Despite everything you might read, the top universities take the students with the best grades. For example, at A-level, independent schools make up less than a quarter of all entries for German but they achieve almost one half of all A* grades. For maths and science, independent schools make up less than a fifth of all entries but we achieve nearly one third of all A*s.

Secondly, our students are much more likely to study the A-level subjects that the best universities want.

And thirdly, we give excellent university application advice.

About ISC Press Office

The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.