Durham’s attainment gap doubles during pandemic

By Elizabeth McBride

The introduction of online learning has significantly widened the attainment gap between Durham’s most and least privileged, data obtained by Palatinate shows.

Since 2020 Durham’s most privileged students have experienced 10 times the increase in first-class grades compared to the most deprived. The gap widened further in 2021 after the end of the ‘no detriment’ policy.

30.5% of those from England’s most deprived areas – rated a 1 on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) – achieved a first-class degree before the pandemic. Since 2020 this has increased slightly to 31.5%. However, for students from the wealthiest regions (IMD 5), the average of 40% attaining first-class degrees before the pandemic increased to 50% with the introduction of online teaching and exams.

Before the pandemic, Durham students from England’s wealthiest areas were already 9.5% more likely to get a first-class degree than those from the most deprived. This attainment gap has now almost doubled in size to 18.5%.

For 2021 graduates – who had more of their final grade based on online learning, with second-year exams also online, a full year of online or ‘blended’ learning,  and the removal of 2020’s ‘no detriment’ policy – the divide was exacerbated.

The percentage of students from the most deprived areas achieving a first-class degree rose by one percentage point from 2020 to 2021, while those awarded a first or 2:1 degree dropped from 95% to 91%, and the percentage awarded a 2:2 jumped from 3% to 12% in 2021.

But for students from England’s wealthiest areas, 97% consistently attained a 2:1 or first-class degree in 2020 and 2021, There was also an increase of four percentage points in first-class degrees, and students receiving a 2:2 dropped from 3% in 2020 to 2% in 2021. The figure was 4.5% before the pandemic

A 2021 survey targeted at state-educated students by The 93% Foundation, found “major concern” about the negative impact of home working. Issues such as lacking resources, poor WiFi, no private space and a noisy working environment were highlighted as areas of concern for career prospects and academic achievement.

Palatinate spoke to Durham students, who identified as working-class, about their experience of online learning. “On Zoom, I could see other students in mansions, while I was trying to do lectures with my phone’s hotspot in a room shared with my sister”, said one.

Another respondent said that they felt that the least privileged students “are often more likely to develop imposter syndrome. I know I did. Online learning made this a lot worse because Zoom felt very intimidating”.

“On Zoom, I could see other students in mansions, while I was trying to do lectures with my phone’s hotspot in a room shared with my sister”

anonymous student

Another agreed with that assessment. “A bunch of names on the screen did not make me feel very comfortable and I actually lost a lot of my confidence in regards to my degree. (…) Returning to in-person teaching has helped this significantly as you can see that you are all in the same boat.”

There was a widespread sentiment that first-generation university students had a worse experience of online learning.

One student said they felt not “having academic parents or older siblings who had attended university” compromised their academic achievement.

Another stated, “I’m lucky my family are very supportive and motivating in terms of the environment but in terms of being able to directly support my studies, they haven’t been able to assist me much at all. This includes paying for tutors or extra academic support, as well as understanding the university workload.”

One respondent said they lacked “the potential for assistance from family members which is much more likely outside of the working-class demographic”.

Also expressed by the interviewees was the perception of a disparity in resources.

“I feel that wealthier friends of mine, had more spaces in their homes in which to study, such as their parent’s offices or spacious kitchens. They also had parents that understood the time constraints and demands of a degree, because they usually had a degree.

“My parents have no clue how a degree works and so I constantly felt undersupported. They also often had parents who could proofread essays for them, whereas my dad is mostly illiterate. My home life can be turbulent due to parental alcoholism and so this greatly interrupted my learning.”

One interviewee said the data was “hardly surprising”.

“My parents have no clue how a degree works and so I constantly felt undersupported”

anonymous student

“A lack of access to materials and technology, alongside more congested commitments (such as jobs or family issues), are core drivers in sustaining and perpetuating academic inequity.

“This is not the fault of wealthier students—but it is a reminder of just how far the University has to go in eliminating unfair disadvantages in its online exam process.”

Another working-class student said, “I had to share one laptop with my three siblings as well as having to help my younger siblings (…) as my mother was a single parent and worked 9-5. I found it difficult to find the time to attend my lessons and complete tasks without taking away from my siblings’ education.

“Especially with libraries and quiet study spaces being closed, it was difficult to concentrate and access resources. I was missing deadlines because I simply didn’t have enough time on my laptop to research or write essays. This led to a meeting with my teacher who watched me cry on video call but didn’t have any way to help other than telling me to ‘do my best to do better next time.

“I feel those of a different background had a much better experience (…) without libraries, I couldn’t take books out and couldn’t afford to keep buying books online.”

The technology required for online learning was also an issue.

“My laptop webcam broke, so I didn’t have access to that for the whole year unless I wanted to pay for a new USB webcam which would have been expensive and my parents and myself can’t afford to be forking out money for these things.

“My laptop didn’t support Zoom either, so that affected my ability to participate in class. All of my technology is second hand and therefore I run into problems with it sometimes.”

Our respondents also suggested the financial stress of the pandemic as a factor for the widened attainment gap.

“I felt highly pressured as many jobs were affected; luckily I did not lose mine, but the stress affected my learning experience heavily, making me worry about my academic prestige and future. (…) I did not have any financial safety net like wealthier people.”

One student raised concerns about the effect long periods of online learning – at school as well as at university – will have on this trend.

“My state school sent out pre-recorded videos whilst an independent down the road had live lessons from March 2020. With 9% of students turning to food banks, many had to work longer hours and spend less time learning to survive.

“The University is simply failing to react to the academic advantages of wealthier students”


“It is unsurprising that those from poorer backgrounds have been hit hardest by the pandemic. The government has failed a generation with austerity, and universities have tunnel vision, refusing to acknowledge, and try to solve, an ever-widening attainment gap.”

Durham’s 93% Club, a group aiming to support state-educated students at the University, told Palatinate: “These statistics and trends expose an all-too-obvious truth for disadvantaged students at Durham: that the University is simply failing to react to the academic advantages of wealthier students, with a complete lack of support in trying to bridge this gap.

“As the statistics show, the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift to remote, online learning has extenuated disadvantages that have only served to benefit wealthier students. These students typically enjoy greater access to technology, better Wifi connection and a remote learning environment at home more suitable for focused work. It is no surprise, therefore, that the richest students in Durham had a far greater increase in receiving first-class degrees during the pandemic.

“Disadvantaged students immediately find themselves facing an uphill struggle to be recognised and valued by potential employers if they are competing against wealthier students who already had a head-start in achieving first degrees before and during their studies.”

A Durham University spokesperson said:  “At Durham we aim to attract the brightest and best students with the merit and potential to succeed here, regardless of their background or financial circumstances. 

“We offer a number of scholarships and bursaries either funded by the University, through partnerships with external organisations or through generous donations from our alumni and friends.  These include the Durham Inspired – North East Scholarships that have been specifically designed to support applicants from the North East of England. 

“However, we are not complacent and we are constantly making improvements to our admissions and support systems for all students, and especially for those who are under-represented in Higher Education.” 

Image: International Office, Durham University

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