Socio-economic status and subject choice at 14: do they interact to affect university access?

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Summary & aims

There is a large socio-economic status gap in Higher Education participation in England. However, most evidence suggests that this is driven by inequality that emerges before the point of application. It has been suggested that one such source of inequality is the subjects and qualifications studied by young people while still at school. The importance of this factor for young people’s chances of progressing to Higher Education in general, and to highly selective HE institutions in particular, has increasingly attracted the attention of policymakers. This has been most notable in the UK Government’s introduction of the English Baccalaureate performance measure for schools at age 16, and the introduction of performance in Russell Group “facilitating subjects” at A-Level for schools at age 18. However, this area is under-studied in the academic literature.



This project addresses this gap using a combination of survey and administrative data on a recent cohort of English students. It will analyse the subject choices taken by young people at age 14 (affecting subjects and qualifications studied for examinations predominantly at age 16). It will use statistical analysis to estimate the subsequent importance of subject choice in the probability of attending university or a highly competitive university. In addition, it will consider the association between socio-economic status and young people’s subject choices and, hence, the extent to which this acts as a transmission mechanism between socio-economic status and inequality in attendance at university.

Timescale and funder

This project was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. It ran from July 2015 to September 2016.

More information about the project is available on the Nuffield Foundation website.



Anders J, Henderson M, Moulton V, Sullivan A. "Incentivising Specific Combinations of Subjects – Does It Make Any Difference to University Access?" National Institute Economic Review. 2018;243(1):R37-R52. doi:10.1177/002795011824300113