3.1 The last major review of the future of higher education in the United Kingdom, by the Robbins Committee, took place in the early 1960s. Since then, higher education, both in the UK and across the world, has changed dramatically.

3.2 UK higher education can take justifiable pride in what it has achieved over the last 30 years. It has expanded opportunities, changed and adapted as the needs of students and other clients have changed, maintained its international standing in research, introduced new approaches to learning and teaching and to quality assurance, and greatly improved its cost-effectiveness. This success has been achieved through the commitment of those who work in higher education: staff have responded to stiff challenges. The nation can have confidence in its higher education system.

3.3 In proposing a new vision for higher education, we are seeking to build on past achievement and support existing excellence. But there are strains resulting from the pace of change, especially in the last few years, which must be addressed if higher education is to continue to be able to develop and serve the nation well. This chapter identifies the major developments in higher education, summarises the views put to us about the strains in today’s arrangements, and concludes with a brief note of the main problems as we see them.


3.4 For the last 35 years, the general trend across the developed world has been for increasing participation in higher education. In the UK there have been periods of rapid growth, in the late 1960s and from 1988 to 1993, with a long pause through the 1970s and early 80s, and our higher education system is now far larger than before the Robbins Committee report. Consistent data about all students are not available for the full period from the early 1960s to the present, but Chart 3.1 shows a complete run of figures for full-time, UK students.

3.5 Forecasts suggest that, if current patterns of participation continue, more than half of today’s school leavers will experience higher education at some time in their lives.1 Higher education will shape individual lives, the economy and society. Such an activity must be the subject of broad and informed consideration and debate.

3.6 In 1996/97 there were more than 1.6 million students studying at higher education level in higher education institutions – over 1.1 million studying full-time or on sandwich programmes and over a half a million part-time. In addition, there are estimated to be in the region of 200,000 higher education students in further education colleges. Historical data on the number of students studying short programmes is incomplete. This is regrettable, as such programmes are likely to be of increasing importance in a learning society.

3.7 Whereas the numbers in all categories of students have expanded, postgraduate numbers have grown fastest in recent years. Over the country as a whole, the growth in numbers studying for sub-degree qualifications (described as ‘other undergraduate’ in Chart 3.3 below) has been slower than growth in first degree numbers especially in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, the balance of higher education has shifted markedly towards the higher levels.

3.8 Of particular interest in a society committed to learning throughout life is the incidence of part-time study. Chart 3.4 shows that the overall balance between full and part-time study has not changed significantly over time, but students of the Open University now make up a substantial proportion of all part-time students. Within the totals, there has been a marked increase in the proportion of postgraduate students who study part-time. A high proportion of students who are studying part-time are in employment – some 90 per cent of those in our survey – although the proportion is much lower among Open University students.

3.9 In the early 1960s attention focused primarily on young people who entered higher education straight from school. At that time, only one young person in eighteen entered full-time higher education. Today the figure is nearer to one in three for the country as a whole and around 45 per cent in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Views on growth in higher education
3.10 Those who offered us evidence generally support, in principle, the expansion of higher education that has taken place. They see it as having responded to the needs and aspirations of individuals, contributing to the health of society, and as an economic necessity. There is some concern, however, that too high a proportion of students is aiming for a degree rather than a sub-degree qualification. Schools, colleges and employer organisations are concerned that potential students do not have the right kind of information about programmes and their outcomes to enable them to make good choices. Our conclusions about the future size of higher education are in Chapter 6.

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