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Gaps in outcomes among Free School Meal students in higher education

01 June 2023

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new paper on educational outcomes across different universities for students formerly eligible for Free School Meals. The disconnect between quality and inequality: An analysis of the gaps in educational outcomes achieved by free school meal-eligible students in English higher education (Policy Note 46) by Professor Antony C. Moss, Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU), shows disadvantaged pupils experience persistent educational inequality across all levels of education.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) awards universities a Gold, Silver or Bronze award on the basis of the excellence they deliver in teaching, learning and student outcomes – and ensuring these are consistent across different types of students including disadvantaged ones. The Policy Note finds, however, that there is no statistically significant difference between Bronze, Silver and Gold providers in the Continuation, Completion, Attainment or Progression gaps of their students.

The paper shows:

  1. Institutions with a TEF Gold Award recruit significantly fewer Free School Meal pupils as a proportion of their overall intake compared to Bronze and Silver universities.
  2. Universities that recruit a smaller number of Free School Meal students have a higher entry tariff and are disproportionally more likely to receive a Gold award under the TEF. Not a single provider with more than 30% of their students having been eligible for Free School Meals was awarded a Gold in the TEF.
  3. There are no significant correlations between the proportion of Free School meal pupils and the size of any outcome gaps. Gold providers, despite having far fewer Free School Meal students, do not achieve comparatively better Continuation, Completion, Attainment or Progression for these students compared to Silver and Bronze providers.

Professor Antony C. Moss, author of the report and LSBU Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and Student Experience, said:‘This report shows that the heavy lifting on social mobility is not distributed equally across the higher education sector. Bronze and Silver TEF-ranked, lower-tariff institutions are doing far more to expand access to higher education, by recruiting the majority of disadvantaged students. At the same time, they are achieving comparable outcomes compared to high-tariff providers, even though these universities recruit very few disadvantaged students and have greater resources per head to support them. Currently, funding for supporting disadvantaged students is distributed equally across universities with Access and Participation Plans in place. The analysis in this report suggests the Office for Students should rethink how it provides this financial support so that those universities educating the majority of England’s disadvantaged students do not continue to lose out.’

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said: ‘There is a wealth of evidence showing eligibility for Free School Meals is the best common indicator of disadvantage among pupils. This important new research suggests those who received Free School Meals continue to lose out even after entering higher education. The Teaching Excellence Framework is designed to measure the quality of universities and the outcomes of students, but the evidence shows it does not sufficiently reflect one basic educational truth: it is harder to educate thousands of disadvantaged students than it is to educate a handful of them. The Teaching Excellence Framework panels are currently working hard to give out the first full set of Awards to universities since 2017. It is vital they learn from the past by doing more to recognise the circumstances of individual institutions.’