In 2015-16, 50 per cent of full-time first degree entrants were first generation.

Where is this data from?

As part of the UCAS application process, applicants are asked if any of their parents or guardians have any higher education (HE) qualifications. HEFCE receives this data through HESA, but until now we have not produced any analysis on this as a large proportion of applicants did not answer the question.

However, the proportion of unknown data has dropped significantly in the last five years. The response rate has been at least 85 per cent for UK-domiciled full-time first degree entrants over the last three years, and so it seems appropriate to now present this data.


The data shows that the proportion of students whose parents did not attend university has grown recently. In 2011-12, 46 per cent of the entrant population, with known parental education data, did not have any parents or guardians with an HE qualification, but by 2014-15 this had increased to 50 per cent.


Unsurprisingly, parental education is correlated to POLAR, the place-based measure of educational disadvantage that is widely used across the higher education sector. Although first generation students are spread across the POLAR quintiles, a much higher proportion of the most disadvantaged students are first generation.

Two-thirds of 2015-16 quintile 1 entrants were students without a parent or guardian with a HE qualification, compared with one-third of quintile 5 entrants. However, it should be noted that the largest group of entrants are from quintile 5.

Since this measure of parental education is individualised then it potentially offers a useful complement to POLAR.

Delving deeper

Looking into greater detail, we see that there are larger proportions of Asian students and mature students without parents who hold an HE qualification. 64 per cent of Asian entrants in 2015-16 were the first generation in their family to go to university.

However, less than half of students with a declared disability have parents or guardians without an HE qualification.

Education was the subject with the largest proportion of entrants without a parent or guardian with an HE qualification (64 per cent).

Other subjects with a high proportion of first generation entrants include:

  • subjects allied to medicine, 56 per cent
  • computer science, 55 per cent
  • law, 54 per cent.

Medicine and dentistry had the smallest proportion: only a quarter of the 2015-16 entrants were first generation.

Other subjects where there are more entrants with parents or guardians with an HE qualification than without are:

  • veterinary science, 67 per cent
  • mathematics, 58 per cent
  • physics, 59 per cent
  • engineering, 57 per cent.

Type of institution

If we look at the types of institution that first generation students attend, we see that the majority of them enter medium and low tariff institutions.

Almost two-thirds of the entrants to high tariff institutions in 2015-16 had parent(s) who hold an HE qualification. This has been consistent for the last four years with only a one percentage point increase in the proportion of first generation students at high tariff institutions.


Of the 2015-16 students entering with A-levels:

  • nearly two-thirds were entrants with a parent or guardian with an HE qualification
  • those with a parent or guardian with an HE qualification: the most common entry grades were AAA or above
  • those without a parent or guardian with an HE qualification: the most common entry grades were BCC or below
  • entrants with AAA or above: only a quarter were first generation.

In conclusion

The higher education sector is attracting more and more students from different backgrounds. Over the last few years more are entering university as the first in their family.

However, this analysis has also highlighted that it seems that a larger proportion of these students achieve lower entry qualifications and attend lower tariff institutions than their peers.

Explore data on parental education further using our interactive tool.