Researchers found that while in general rural areas had higher overall progression to university than city centres and surrounding areas, when the research took into account factors including socio-economic status, age, ethnicity and sex, the disadvantaged pupils from rural areas were the least likely to progress to one of 27 'top' UK universities.
The authors suggest the difference is due to a 'vortex of influences' including 'social mix effects' in more diverse urban settings, successive urban-centred policy interventions and the targeting of university and third-sector outreach activities to urban areas.
Although the results reaffirmed that social class remains the biggest predictor of progression to a top university, the researchers say the results highlight drawbacks of existing geographic measures used to identify disadvantage, as they do not account for the diverse nature of deprived areas, and therefore universities risk missing disadvantaged students.
The authors say instead, the use of more sophisticated measures could help universities target under-represented and disadvantaged students more effectively, and call for a co-ordinated strategic approach to ensure that no areas are missed by universities' widening participation programmes.
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