The POLAR problem: Hiding London’s disadvantaged students from view

The latest report released today (14 February 2019) by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), the national organisation for widening access to higher education (HE) based within London Higher, highlighted again the shortcomings of how access to HE is measured in the capital.

The report takes an in-depth look at how the progression to HE of white students in England from areas of low participation neighbourhoods (LPNs) varies by HE provider, and includes the findings from a survey of over 50 HE providers looking at how they are addressing the challenges in this area. However, the reliance on the Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) measure as the way in which HE providers are judged where access is concerned makes it frustratingly difficult to learn about what is really happening in London.

POLAR classifies areas across the UK based on the proportion of the young population that participates in HE. It divides areas into five groups – or quintiles – based on the proportion young people who enter higher education aged 18 or 19 years old. For some years now, London has led the rest of the country by some way where HE participation is concerned. This means there are only 13 wards left, out of over 600 in the capital, which fall into the lowest of the five POLAR quintiles. Given it is these lowest quintile areas which are the primary focus for national policymakers the problems for London become clear.

As far as white students from lower socio-economic groups are concerned, in London they are mainly hidden from view by POLAR. Recent work done by the widening access division of London Higher – AccessHE, shows that there are over 25,000 white young students from London going to HE every year. Many of these will come from lower income backgrounds. As do many of the 40,000 young students from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds who go to HE every year from London – who are also overlooked when POLAR alone is used as a guide and a measure for access work.

The report also finds that less than 20% of universities have targets related to the access and participation of white students from lower socio-economic groups in their Access and Participation Plans (APPs). Given that over 70% of universities are below the sector average for participation of these groups in HE, this is a concern. However, for London institutions it is understandable. Given that the majority rely, to a significant extent, on recruiting students from London, POLAR it makes it hard, if not impossible, to set targets that they can realistically achieve.

The case for looking again at how we measure progress in access, and the role of POLAR in this, is extremely strong, and the new NEON report argues for this. As a measure it has its uses, and correlates very well against other geographical measures of disadvantage for all areas outside the capital. But in London it actually works against the student interest. London’s HE institutions, however, have to work in the world as it is now not as they would like it to be. They are endeavouring to take access forward despite POLAR. This means developing their own ways of identifying learners from lower socio-economic groups in the capital with whom they can work. AccessHE has been investigating how they are doing this and what lessons there could be for a post POLAR world. A report on this is due to be released in Spring 2019.



For more NEON publications please visit the NEON website.

If you enjoyed this London perspective, why not check out our London HE week events programme.