The gap between poorer students and their more affluent peers attending university has widened to the largest gap for 14 years, figures show.
Better-off pupils are still significantly more likely to go to university than their more disadvantaged peers and the gap between the two groups – 19.1 percentage points – is the widest it has been since 2005/06.
Data from the Department for Education (DfE) shows that 26.6% of pupils in England who received free school meals (FSMs) at the age of 15 went on to university in 2019/20, compared with 45.7% of those who did not receive meals.
It comes as leading universities are under pressure to widen access to different groups of students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The gap between the numbers of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students entering more selective universities also widened in 2019/20.
Only 4% of pupils eligible for FSMs progressed to high-tariff institutions – universities with higher entry requirements – by the age of 19, compared with 12% of those not eligible for FSMs, the figures show.
The DfE analysis found that white British males who were eligible for FSMs are among the least likely to progress to university by the age of 19 (12.6%) – and the progression rate has fallen for the second year in a row.
Overall, the progression rate for black pupils has increased by more than any other ethnic group – from 44.1% in 2009/10 to 59.9% in 2019/20 – but the rate has increased by just 0.1 percentage points since 2016/17.
The Government’s Widening Participation in Higher Education report also reveals significant regional differences across England in the likelihood of getting university places.
Almost half (48.5%) of FSM pupils in inner London progressed to university by the age of 19 in 2019/20, compared with fewer than a fifth in the South West (17.1%), the East Midlands (18.7%) and the South East (18.7%).
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Universities have a responsibility to do more to widen participation through the use of contextual admissions, outreach programmes and targeted support.
“But, frankly, the problem goes much wider than that and relates to the fact that the educational attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers starts early in life and then continues to widen.
“A much more concerted effort is required to narrow this gap. Money is not the whole answer but it is important nonetheless and there has to be more Government investment in early years education, schools and colleges, and in tackling child poverty.”
Chris Millward, director of fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said: “Although we have been successful in widening participation to higher education for the most disadvantaged students, the gap between these students and their more prosperous peers is increasing.
“So, while opportunity has continued to improve, it is clear there is more to do if we are to achieve true equality of opportunity.”
He added: “Ensuring that students from all backgrounds are able to access and succeed in higher education is a primary focus for the OfS, and we expect universities to demonstrate their continued commitment to this goal.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities are continuing to make good progress opening up opportunities, demonstrated by the record entry rate among disadvantaged young people and pupils on Free School Meals.
“It is clear there is still some way to go in furthering equality of opportunity and universities are committed to building on this progress as we recover from the pandemic.”
A DfE spokesman said: “This Government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that every young person, regardless of their background or geographic location, can get the skills and training needed to secure rewarding, well-paid jobs.
“University is an important lever for social mobility, and latest figures show we have made real progress, with a greater proportion of disadvantaged pupils going to university than ever before, but we know there is more to do.
“Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access a world-class education remains a top priority, and we expect universities to do all they can to help disadvantaged students.”