A new factor in UK students’ university attainment: the relative age effect reversal?

Date06 July 2015
Published date06 July 2015
AuthorSimon J. Roberts,Tim Stott
Subject MatterEducation,Curriculum, instruction & assessment,Educational evaluation/assessment
A new factor in UK students’
university attainment: the
relative age effect reversal?
Simon J. Roberts and Tim Stott
Faculty of Education, Community and Leisure,
Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to study relative age effects (RAEs) in a selected sample of
university students. The majority of education systems across the globe adopt age-related cut-off points
for eligibility. This strategy has received criticism for (dis)advantaging those older children born closer
to the “cut-off” date for entry into an academic year and for promoting the existence of RAEs. To date,
there are only two studies which have examined the relative age phenomenon in a university setting
Design/methodology/approach – Data of student records from the years 2006-2009 were analysed.
Specically this included date of birth, The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) entry
points, gender, grade point averages and nal year degree classication.
Findings Analysis of data collected from 460 university students revealed a signicant RAE
reversal. Specically, relatively younger students achieved signicantly higher rst-class honours
degrees than relatively older students (p0.01).
Research limitations/implications – Limitations include the following: the sample was modest
and restricted to only 460 students located within one of the universities ve faculties. Recent RAE
studies in education have recruited thousands of students; therefore, these ndings may not be totally
representative of the broader UK university population.
Originality/value – This is only the second UK-based study to examine RAEs from a university
perspective. The ndings highlight an interesting and new insight into the RAE phenomenon and one
that warrants further scientic attention.
Keywords Academic attainment, Higher education, Adult learners, Relative age effects
Paper type Research paper
The majority of education systems across the globe adopt age related cut-off points for
eligibility. In the UK, for example, entry to formal school education is compulsory once
a child reaches four years of age. The admission date for reception (i.e. the rst year of
primary school) for most schools in the UK is September 1 (with the exception of
Northern Ireland where it is July 1 and Scotland where it is 28 February). Therefore, in
England and Wales, children are required to have a chronological age of four years
before the September 1 cut-off date to be eligible to begin school in that particular
academic year. Consequently, children born in September can be up to 12 months older
than peers in the same grade level born in August of the previous year. This variation in
birth dates amongst children grouped in the same cohort is commonly referred to as the
The authors are grateful for the incisive and detailed comments from two anonymous reviewers.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 30 January 2013
Revised 5 July 2013
6 January 2014
Accepted 17 October 2014
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.23 No. 3, 2015
©Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-01-2013-0008

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