By Nick Pearce -
Over the last two decades, higher education has been a growth sector in almost all advanced and developing economies. On average across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, graduation rates from university-level education have increased by a huge 21 percentage points in the past 13 years. The rate of change has been such that the UK – despite large increases in higher education enrolments – has slipped to mid-table in the OECD graduation rankings.
OECD graduation rankings 1995-2008
However, expansion in UK higher education has been accompanied by a significant widening of access. The gains have not simply accrued to the middle classes. Research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) shows that the likelihood of those from the lowest participation areas entering higher education has increased by 30 per cent over the last five years and by 50 per cent over the last 15 years. The gap between the participation rates of young people from the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged areas has been narrowing, both in proportional terms and percentage point terms, since the mid 2000s.
This success in widening access is largely attributable to the long-term effects of school reforms, dating back to the introduction of the GCSE in the 1980s, which first spurred expansion in staying-on rates. More recently, rising school standards and progress in the closing of social class gaps in 16-19 educational participation, aided by Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMAs), has provided a platform for increased higher education applications from young people from low income households. In turn, this increase in demand has been met by an increased supply of places, facilitated by the funding secured from the introduction of tuition fees. In this way, policymakers have broadly achieved their goals of expanding enrolments, widening access and maintaining standards of higher education. Fees did not deter wider access so much as provide the funding to enable it to happen. Critically, however, access widened because there were more places on offer: this will not be the case in the years ahead.
In contrast to this story, fairer access to the most selective institutions has not improved – indeed, on some measures, it has got worse. The most advantaged 20 per cent of young people were around six times more likely to attend selective universities in the mid-1990s than the most disadvantaged 40 per cent. This had increased to around seven times more likely by the mid-2000s. Moreover, as the Sutton Trust has documented, independent (private) school pupils are over 22 times more likely to enter a highly selective university than those disadvantaged state school children who are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM).
The reasons for such disparities are to be found largely in prior attainment, although it is noticeable that leading universities, such as King’s College London and University College London, recruit significantly higher proportions of students from low income backgrounds than other Russell Group members (which may be attributed, inter alia, to their geographical proximity to those students, use of contextual admissions policies and outreach programmes).
One lesser remarked aspect of this lack of progress is how inequality in attainment in science A-levels drives access to selective universities. It is almost impossible to apply to Russell Group universities in courses such as medicine, engineering and the natural sciences without A or A* grades in science subjects at A-level. The odds of achieving grades A or B at A-level are 2-3 times higher for those who take separate sciences than for those entered for ‘core’ (dual or triple combined subjects, sometimes with ‘additional’ science subjects) science at GCSE. And yet until recently, there has been a virtual apartheid in the schools system between, on the one hand, independent and grammar schools offering single science GCSEs, and on the other the comprehensive schools that only offer the combined ‘core’ qualifications.
The dominance of the independent and grammar schools in higher grade science A-levels is clearly visible in the 2010 entries for Physics.
A-level Physics grades A/B
Fortunately, a remarkable catch-up process has taken place in the maintained comprehensive sector in recent years.
Increase in schools offering GCSE Triple Science, 2008-2010
These improvements should underpin stronger A-level performance in the sciences in comprehensive schools, sixth form and further education (FE) colleges in the future, broadening the base of applicants in these subjects to selective universities.
Of course, it is too soon to tell whether tuition fees of £6,000 or £9,000 will deter applicants to higher education from low income homes. If tuition fees were a deterrent in themselves, recent progress in widening access would not have taken place. But demand for higher education is not infinitely elastic, and the experience of the USA shows that it is more likely to be students from low to middle income households who lose out, rather than the rich or poor: another case of the ‘squeezed middle’. It is young people from these backgrounds who will feel the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance – the first rung on the ladder to higher education after GCSEs – most keenly.
Yet putting these contemporary debates in wider context, it should be recalled that the greatest steps forward in broadening access to higher education have come when the needs of mature students, seeking part-time local or distance learning, have taken precedence in policy. Tony Crosland created the polytechnic sector precisely to expand opportunities for adults who wanted courses to fit in with their working and family lives. The Open University was founded on similar principles. These institutions eschewed the Oxbridge and plate glass residential model of the university that the Robbins Report had endorsed, preferring to democratise access to higher education by creating new institutional structures and methods for learning. In large part, they were successful in this endeavour. Today mature students account for the majority of first year undergraduate students (382,195 in English higher education institutions in 2009-10, compared to 333,225 under 21 years.)
Unfortunately, subsequent changes to government support for students, dominated by the residential model of higher education for young people, lagged behind the institutional creativity of the 1960s and 1970s. Historically, part-time students, as well as those in further education, have fared much worse in the allocation of public funding for student support, only securing additional entitlements after Labour came to power in 1997, and even then remaining excluded from the main student loan and grant system. One of the least noticed (in public debate at least) but most welcome elements of the current UK Coalition Government’s reform package is that part-time students studying at 33% of a full-time course will be entitled to tuition fee loans.
In the future, renewed impetus for achieving greater equality in access to higher education must come from expanding places. This will now have to wait until the next Comprehensive Spending Review in 2014, when the focus should be on shorter, initial higher education programmes (such as Foundation Degrees), work-based and part-time learning, and the creation of new routes into higher education for higher-level apprentices. All of these have lower unit costs than traditional full-time higher education and are areas of provision that would most benefit from further expansion. Further education colleges also want to provide more places ‘off quota’ at no extra cost to the government and they should be allowed to do so. Whilst school reform can help level the playing field in access to university for young people, social justice in higher education will not be achieved without putting mature students at the forefront of policy.
Nick Pearce is Director of IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research.
IPPR is the UK’s leading progressive think tank. We produce rigorous research and innovative policy ideas for a fair, democratic and sustainable world. We are open and independent in how we work, and with offices in London and the North of England, IPPR spans a full range of local and national policy debates. Our international partnerships extend IPPR’s influence and reputation across the world.
 OECD (2010), Education at a Glance 2010, Table A3.2
 HEFCE (2010) Trends in young participation in higher education
 Department for Education (2011), Maths & Science Education: the Supply of High Achievers at A-level, DfE Research Report DFE-RR079