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It’s not (yet?) true that half of young people go to university

  • 9 October 2019
  • By Peter Brant

This guest blog was kindly contributed by Peter Brant, Senior Policy Manager at The Open University. 

There was much excitement at the end of September as the latest Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) data apparently showed that Tony Blair’s ambitious target for “50 per cent of young adults going into higher education” by 2010 had finally been achieved, seven years behind schedule.

Opinions were mixed about whether or not this was a good or a bad thing, but there was almost unanimous consensus that the target had finally been achieved and that half of young people were now going to university.

The big problem with this consensus is that it is not actually true that half of young people in England are now going to university. The record higher education participation rate of any cohort of young people is still only 43% and it is not projected to get to 50% for at least another decade.

How can this be? The big misunderstanding at the heart of the misinterpretation of this data is that HEIPR does not measure the participation rate of a cohort of young people. Instead, it projects the proportion of 30 years olds in 2030 who will have participated in higher education if age-specific participation rates at ages 18, 19, 20, through to 30 all remain constant at 2017/18 levels.

It is by no means certain that we will even get to 50% participation by 2030. As observed in a 2003 Office for National Statistics review of the methodology, HEIPR will almost certainly over-predict actual HE participation rates at a time when the number of teenagers going to university is increasing.

Current participation rates of people in their twenties are based on cohorts who were far less likely to participate in higher education as teenagers than the school leavers of today. It is not yet clear if the current spike in 18-year-old participation – which has increased by 23% since 2010 – will be sustained over time, or whether what we have been seeing is people bringing forward their participation in higher education a few years rather than a sustained increase in the HE participation rate.

There are several other misunderstandings about the data: it does not just refer to those who go to university straight after their A-levels to do degrees. Of young adults projected to participate in HE by the age of 30:

  • 7% are expected to participate in HE in FE Colleges.
  • 10% are expected to study so-called higher technical qualifications rather than degrees.
  • 8% are expected to participate on a part-time basis rather than as full-time students.
  • 20% are expected to enter HE during their twenties.

What does this mean other than that we need to pause celebrations about higher education participation hitting 50% for at least another decade?

The key point is that it demonstrates the critical importance of sustaining current HE participation rates of people in their twenties to achieving the target. This will require more people to be encouraged and supported to progress to higher education from Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications. It will also require adults to be supported to combine a job with studying a higher education qualification.

Flexible part-time study will therefore be crucial. It will be very difficult to achieve the 50% target unless the post-18 review of education and funding and the forthcoming review of the regulatory and funding arrangements surrounding flexible provision deliver the required policy changes to reverse the collapse in participation in part-time HE since 2011/12. There are a lot of lessons for English policymakers for how this might be done in the success of the Diamond Review reforms in Wales, which demonstrates the impact that reducing the cost of study and providing maintenance support to all part-time learners could have in boosting flexible higher education.

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