Anyone with an interest in, or working to, widen participation in higher education (HE) will have heard of POLAR. They will know that it is a key measure used to assess progress both for individual HE providers and for the sector as a whole.

POLAR is an area-based measure of young participation in HE, which allows us to see where the UK appears to have very low rates of participation, as well where we have higher rates of participation. This allows us to identify places of educational disadvantage.

The data does this by estimating how likely young people are to go into HE according to where they live. It assigns local areas into quintiles, where quintile 1 areas have the lowest rates of young participation and quintile 5 areas have the highest rates.

Why is POLAR important?

POLAR is the primary measure that HEFCE and the government use to assess the progress of the sector in widening access to HE. It is the only UK-wide measure. POLAR allows HEFCE to produce robust analysis of trends in young HE participation. It also identifies the HE providers that are doing the most to widen access to HE, as well as those which still have much work to do.

POLAR is used as a benchmarking factor for metrics of continuation, high-skilled employment and earnings in the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). HEFCE also uses it as one element within our calculations of funding allocations of the student premium and the National Collaborative Outreach Programme.

What doesn’t it do?

POLAR is a measure of educational disadvantage. Although there is often a strong relationship between this and other forms of socio-economic disadvantage, it is not always the case. Many areas in London, for example, have high rates of HE participation despite high levels of other kinds of disadvantage.

In addition, as an area-based measure, POLAR should not be used on its own to target or inform decisions about individuals. Whilst it would be acceptable to use POLAR as one of a number of indicators to flag that a particular individual might be eligible for particular consideration or support, to use only POLAR for these purposes would be inappropriate.

Why the update from POLAR3 to POLAR4?

There are two main reasons that POLAR has been updated. The first is that it is important that we use the most recent data possible. To calculate the young participation rates, we use data for five cohorts of young people. For POLAR4 we are using data for young people that entered HE between the academic years 2009-10 and 2014-15 (aged either 18 or 19).

The second reason is the need to adjust geographical classification used to identify small areas. In previous versions of POLAR, we used Census Area Statistics wards from the 2001 national census, but statistics bodies have reduced their use of these wards over time and there are no longer population statistics published at this geography. We have therefore adopted Middle Layer Super Output Areas, which are an official statistical geography. This brings POLAR4 into line with other official datasets.

What does POLAR4 tell us?

On average, participation rates have increased and POLAR4 is the first POLAR classification to have no geographical areas with a participation rate of 0 per cent.

In POLAR4 we see that just over half of the young population live in areas where the participation rate is between 20 and 40 percent, while some areas boast 100 per cent participation.

However, there is still a large gap in participation rates for quintile 5 areas compared to all other quintiles. Young people from quintile 5 are around three times more likely to go on to HE than those in quintile 1.

There are also regional differences. Young participation in London is at least 8 percentage points higher than other English regions and it has the greatest proportion of quintile 5 areas. The north east of England has the greatest proportion of quintile 1 areas.

Explore the POLAR4 map

Read the technical detail behind the classification and a summary analysis of what it shows