What is POLAR and how useful is this measurement of disadvantage?

All universities are required by the Office for Students to increase the proportion of students they take from ‘low participation’ areas.  One of the main ways they do this is to flag up on applications the ‘Polar quintile’ the applicants live in.

POLAR is an acronym which stands for Participation of Local Areas. The UK is divided into a large number of ‘local areas’ which are used in the production of statistics collected via the UK census.

POLAR4 classifies local areas across the UK according to the young participation rate in higher education. The young participation rate is calculated by dividing the number of young people from each area who enter higher education aged 18 or 19 by the young population of that area.  POLAR4 was calculated using data on students who begun their studies between 2009-10 and 2013-14.  The areas are then ranked by participation rate and split into five quintiles, each of which represents about a fifth of the young population. The 20% of areas with the lowest participation rates are designated as “quintile 1”, the top 20% are “quintile 5” and everywhere else is somewhere in between.

As an area-based measure it is particularly straightforward to use in targeting outreach and evaluation as it does not require sensitive personal data from individuals.

POLAR is publicly available. Anyone can use the postcode look up tool provided by the Office for Students to see which quintile they reside in.  Look up your address to see how disadvantaged you are.

POLAR has a number of disadvantages.  It is based on the 2011 Census data which is very out-of-date in areas of social change like East London. Similarly, it is based on university admissions data which is ten years’ old – some places have seen very dramatic improvements in HE admissions since then.

It disadvantages Londoners where 45% of local areas in the capital are classified as quintile 5 compared to just 1.3% which are classified as quintile 1. This reflects the fact that a higher percentage of young people from London progress to university when compared to other regions. In fact, it would not be unusual for a student in London to be both pupil premium (on free school meals) and in POLAR quintile 5 (the most advantaged category) at the same time.

Are people who live in quintile 1 of the area-based measure less likely to enter higher education?  Yes, statistically, but things that are true of a neighbourhood are not necessarily true of an individual. They all live an area where fewer young people are likely to enter higher education, but each individual will have other circumstances that influence their likelihood to go to university such as their intelligence, work ethic, level of family support and school quality.

Professor Barnaby Lenon, Dean of  Education

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