Information, advice and guidance
Widening participation

Why subject choice could be the key to increasing participation in higher education

As a working class minority ethnic undergraduate student, I noticed the lack of representation on my ancient history course, but it wasn’t until I started my role as a Widening Participation Graduate Intern at the University of Manchester that I realised the extent and the implications of the trends in subject choices of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’d like to highlight some of these trends and their implications with the hope that strong partnerships between schools and universities, a good use of resources and most of all teacher encouragement, can help students make the best post 16 and higher education choices for them.

What are students from disadvantaged areas most likely to study?

The latest data from Higher Education Statistics Association (HESA) shows that students from areas of the lowest progression into higher education (Quintile 1, POLAR 4) are most highly represented in subjects allied to medicine (14% of undergraduates in this area are from Quintile 1) – including nursing and pharmacy, biological sciences (13%), computer science (14%), law (13%) and education courses (16%).1

Further, as the latest UCAS data shows, disadvantaged students from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are significantly more likely to enter university than their white peers.2 Therefore, trends in UK domiciled BAME students entering university are also important when looking at data concerning subject preferences of disadvantaged students. With that knowledge, it is perhaps unsurprising that the trends are similar, with pharmacy having the biggest number of BAME students (64% of all 2018/19 undergraduates identifying as BAME). Medicine ranks second most popular with 40% and economics (38%), law (34%), business (33%), engineering (29%) and computer science (28%) also show high representation of students from BAME backgrounds.3

What ties those courses together is their strong links to the job market and as someone with a cultural understanding of a traditional Asian and working class upbringing it makes a lot of sense – if performing well academically, the choices presented are few – a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. To contrast these figures, just 12% of students on undergraduate courses in historical and philosophical studies were BAME in 2018/19. Figures are similar in languages (including English) at 15%, arts subjects (15%) and physics (16%).

What does this mean?

“But why is this important?” you might ask, “Surely it’s just down to personal preference!” Well, it isn’t – there is no known innate factor that contributes to these trends, rather it is a product of misinformation, misconception and complex intersectional backgrounds of underrepresented groups. It is an extremely important issue if we want to see a fair representation in all academic and professional fields – including in our history departments, government bodies and cultural institutions.

A recent survey of undergraduate students shows those from underrepresented groups complaining about poor career advice, lack of information and a university admission system biased towards upper and middle class students. It also shows that 34% of students ranked teachers as their primary source of information compared to 35% for parents and guardians.4 For students that are first in the family to consider higher education, teachers and careers advisors will ultimately play a big role in helping to level the playing field.

There might also be a link between subject trends and underperformance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. UCAS data shows the rate of acceptance for 18 year old applicants is 13% for those deemed to be most disadvantaged, compared to 58% for those in the least disadvantaged group.5

According to a recent report, highly selective universities are struggling to meet government targets on widening access and the progress is said to be too slow.6 There is also a concern for the lack of students from disadvantaged backgrounds getting the grades required to meet those targets.7 From personal experience, I can say that I have seen many of my friends struggle with their A levels because they did not choose them according to their interests and strengths, but according to the limited career options that they believed were available to them at the time.

So what could schools do about this?

Making a wide range of subjects including those in humanities and arts seem more available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be what is needed to help close the gap between the least and most disadvantaged.

Teachers should encourage their students to consider their academic strengths and interests as much as possible when making their post-16 choices. Advancing Access is a great resource to use, with a library of short videos that feature real students and reinforce this message.

Reaching out to your local Higher Education institution can also help, as they might be able to provide academic enrichment sessions to your students. It is a good way to get students to find out about current academic research and explore subjects beyond the confines of the syllabus. As a member of staff, I can confirm that The University of Manchester has a wide range of opportunities for students living in Greater Manchester to get involved with and this is the case for many other higher education institutions. There are also lots of charity organisations such as The Brilliant Club, The Sutton Trust and IntoUniversity that your school can get involved.

Engaging with parents and guardians at parent evenings is also important, as parents with no experience of Higher Education may not be aware of the range of opportunities available. Holding a higher education fair at your school and inviting parents to come along could also be a good opportunity.

Finally, careers advisors should help students explore a range of graduate roles, including research and roles which do not require a specific degree to show the value of less preferred degree courses. In order to provide good quality service, it is important to have a good understanding of student backgrounds. Some students might require extra support and encouragement to pursue what they are truly passionate about.



1. Percentage of entrants from under-represented groups (Quintile 1, POLAR 4) by subject. UK domiciled entrants who did not leave within 50 days of commencement at HE providers.




5. The multiple equality measure (MEM) is UCAS' principal measure of equality. It brings together information on several equality dimensions for which large differences in the probability of progression into higher education exist. These equality dimensions include sex, ethnic group, where people live (using the POLAR3 and IMD classifications), secondary education school type, and income background (as measured by whether a person was in receipt of free school meals (FSM), a means-tested benefit while at school).


7. Dr Maria Neophytou, director of social mobility charity Impetus,



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