Does where you live matter when it comes to applying for university?

23 May 2024

For most young people in England, growing up in the north or south, by the coast or in the city, is less important to their educational progress than their socioeconomic background and whether they come from a deprived neighbourhood.

However, new research from the University of Exeter finds that young people in the south-west are less likely to apply for a university place than other teenagers across England, even after considering their background circumstances. They have, on average, 54% lower odds of applying for university than their counterparts from similar backgrounds living in London.

Lead author, Dr Chris Playford (University of Exeter) said: “With rates of higher education participation varying greatly across the country, our study is one of the first to try to understand whether socioeconomic factors, region, or the type of geographical area people grow up in – be it coastal or inland, rural or urban – matter most for educational progression. We find that disadvantage may be holding most people back from applying for university, but in the case of the south-west, young people could be deciding to pursue other opportunities.”

The researchers examined longitudinal data and linked geographical and education records from almost 16,000 millennials born in 1989-90 who are taking part in the Next Steps study. They analysed information on which region of England people came from, what type of geographical area they lived in and how deprived their neighbourhood was when they were age 14, alongside rich data on their socioeconomic and family background. The researchers then compared this to information reported by young people in their late teens and 20s on their university aspirations, applications and attendance.

Teenagers in London were the most likely to apply for university at age 18, followed by students in the south-east and north-west. Young people across the rest of the country had lower odds of applying for university at age 18, with those in the south-west being the least likely. However, when the researchers considered people’s area deprivation, socioeconomic background and family circumstances, the differences disappeared between all regions, but not for young people in the south-west.

The study also found that there were no differences in the chances of applying for university between teenagers living in coastal, inland, rural and urban areas once their background circumstances and the level of deprivation in their area were taken into account.

These findings suggest that area deprivation, and socioeconomic and family background are more pivotal in determining most young people’s future paths than the actual regions or geographical areas they live in. However, none of these background factors could explain why students in the south-west were less likely to apply for a university place.

University applications at age 18 varied across regions, with the highest rates among students in London and the lowest among those in the south-west (55% v 33%). University attendance rates followed a similar pattern with London top and the south-west bottom by age 25 (61% v 42%).

Dr Playford explained: “Rates of higher education participation, and levels of social mobility in the south-west’s coastal and rural communities are among the lowest in England. Previous studies have shown that lack of public transport, fewer education providers and internet connectivity may be key barriers.

“Surprisingly, though, our research shows that neither the type of geographical area, level of deprivation or people’s socioeconomic background could explain why this region has lower university aspirations and progression than other regions in England. So, why might this be the case? Rural and coastal lifestyles rooted within communities can create strong attachments and feelings of belonging. It may be that for some young people not leaving their communities in pursuit of education and social mobility might be the best life choice.

“Although the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda aims to ‘spread opportunities’ for people living in different regions of the UK, our research shows there is no one size fits all solution for people in the coastal and rural areas of the south-west. Future policy and practice should consider what opportunities are available for these communities, but must also understand and support alternative pathways, to enable choices leading to the greatest possible life satisfaction for these young people.”

Further information

Coast and City, It Matters Where You Live: How Geography Shapes Progression to Higher Education in England,’ by Christopher James Playford, Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Simon Benham-Clarke was published in November 2023 in the journal Social Sciences.

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