Chair's Blog: Raising a participation cheer

02 May 2013

It would be easy to write off the rise to 49% in the higher education participation rate for the 17-30 year age group in 2011 as an anomaly triggered by the 2012 increase in fees in England. There is no doubt that some students avoided the new fees regime by abandoning their gap year; others, who had previously prevaricated, were also motivated to apply to university in 2011. But to write-off the 2011 statistics as an exception would be to ignore the underlying and welcome upward trend.

The higher education initial participation rate is not a percentage so much as an estimate of the probability that a 17 year old will participate in higher education by age 30. Prior to 2011 the initial participation rate was estimated to be 46% for three consecutive years. This means that there is now roughly a one in two chance that a 17 year old leaving school in 2011-12 will go to university by the time they are 30 and this should be a real cause for celebration. 

However these statistics should come with a health warning and should not be used to support the myth that 50% of young people progress to university when they are 18. In fact, as the Office for National Statistics confirms, the progression rate for 18 years olds in 2011-12 was 25.7% which means that just over a quarter of all 18 year olds started university courses in that year. What the higher education initial participation rate really shows is that many young people do not apply to university at 18 in a linear progression route from school and college. Instead they step off the education ladder. To their credit, many universities offer access to higher education for people in their twenties, thirties and beyond, allowing many more individuals the opportunity to get back onto the educational ladder, study for a degree and realise their potential. As our Never Too Late To Learn report confirms, this is a unique feature of the UK higher education system. Given the general focus on 18 year olds, it is a real and significant achievement and one that we should preserve and promote.

Universities have an obligation to ensure access to the widest possible group of students who can benefit from studying for a higher education qualification – and government has a responsibility to broaden its campaign to promote the value of higher education. In a nutshell, university is, not only for 18 year olds.

Entry to higher education does depend on prior achievement and attainment. Universities which accept a range of qualifications and take account of personal circumstance broaden the opportunities available for people who have not yet acquired a degree. We must also highlight the achievements of teachers and others in raising aspiration and attainment. Their efforts in improving outcomes have been crucial to the success story of the increase in participation which the HEIPR statistics confirm.

This increase in participation has taken place in spite, rather than because of, the decline in the number of 18 year olds in the population. By 2011/12 the number of 18 year-old initial participants was 23% higher than in 2006/07, while the population estimate was only 1% higher than in 2006/07. In 2010/11 and 2011/12 initial participants increased from the position estimated for the previous year, while the population of 18 year-olds decreased.

There are well-rehearsed arguments about the disparity in progression of students from lower socio-economic groups. It remains to be seen how reforms to schools, the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the introduction of Advanced Learner loans for those studying  Level 3 qualifications over the age of 24, play out. Time will tell, but the statistics make clear that not everyone with talent is ready to take advantage of university at 18. For many, it is right to go later and gain the advantages that a degree provides.

Nonetheless, the statistics also reaffirm that gender disparity remains a continuing challenge. The provisional participation rate for women in 2011/12 was 55%, up by two percentage points compared with the estimate for 2010/11 of 53%. The difference in the initial participation rates of males and females reduced slightly in 2011/12 (by 0.3 percentage points) compared with a year earlier but the difference is estimated to be 10 percentage points. This is a huge gap which universities cannot bridge in isolation and which merits a national focus and strategy that includes schools but to which politicians of all parties have as yet been reluctant to commit. The current position means that not everyone who could take advantage of university is doing so.

So who has gained from the increase in higher education participation? First, those individuals who have studied at university will be the primary beneficiaries of the transformational, life-changing opportunities of higher education to which the Universities Minister David Willetts recently referred. A degree has also become even more important in a world that increasingly needs people with graduate attributes. Second, the increase in participation and graduate supply will have added value to business and public service delivery throughout the country. It will have helped to counterbalance the more difficult economic circumstances of cities and regions outside London and the South East and will have enhanced entrepreneurship and innovation in new sectors of the economy. Third, it will make an important difference to social cohesion, well-being and the health of our society. Last but by no means least given concerns over government expenditure, it will also add to the Treasury’s coffers.

As the recent million report What’s the value of a UK degree? clearly sets out, the value of increased participation in higher education does not simply accrue to the individual in financial or personal terms. The Treasury (and that also means the taxpayer) will be much better off as result of increases in participation. The public’s initial investment in higher education will be repaid many times over.

So let’s raise a cheer for the participation statistics and the work of universities, schools, colleges and politicians who have supported the cause. But more, let's pay tribute to the achievements of our students and graduates. They’ve done extraordinarily well in our excellent universities in a higher education sector recognised throughout the world for its commitment to the quality of the student experience, scholarship and research.

Professor Michael Gunn is Chair of the university think-tank million+ and Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University

Twitter: @StaffsUni