7.1 In this chapter, we review the levels of participation in higher education by different groups in our society and offer recommendations on how low levels of participation by some groups might be increased. Looking back, there is much to celebrate: there have been some remarkable achievements. But substantial problems remain and improvements are required as a matter of priority. For the reasons set out in the previous chapter (Chapter 6), increasing participation in higher education is a necessary and desirable objective of national policy over the next 20 years. This must be accompanied by the objective of reducing the disparities in participation in higher education between groups and ensuring that higher education is responsive to the aspirations and distinctive abilities of individuals.

7.2 In making this statement, we reject the notion that more students will mean a reduction in academic standards. The notion of a limited ‘pool of ability’ was examined and rejected by the Robbins Committee. We too have examined it and reject it. It is very often true that ‘people respond to opportunities that are available’ and, if the recommendations elsewhere in our report are accepted (Chapter 10) widening opportunities can certainly be consistent with maintaining standards.1

7.3 We considered a range of evidence 2 which enabled us to address:

  • the current pattern of participation, including that by specific groups within the population;
  • the causes of differential participation and possible solutions.

The current pattern of participation

7.4 As we saw in Chapter 3, participation in higher education has greatly increased since the time of Robbins. Over the last decade alone there have been major changes in the pattern of participation as the following table demonstrates for full-time first degree students.

7.5 We welcome the way in which the expansion of higher education during this period has been associated with increased participation by women, by mature students, by students from socio-economic groups III to V, by students with new kinds of entry qualifications, and by students from ethnic minorities.3 Higher education can bestow material benefits on those who take it up, whether in higher salaries or in having a job rather than being unemployed, as we saw in Chapter 6. As participation increases, the cost of non-participation grows too.4 Society are higher education institutions have, therefore, a moral obligation to concern themselves with continuing differences in levels of participation by different groups.

Participation by women
7.6 Women’s participation overall is now in line with their demographic representation. The percentage of women undergraduates in the UK has doubled since Robbins. But they are unevenly distributed across subjects and levels of study. Women are under-represented in engineering and technology; and more than proportionately represented in the arts and humanities and in the natural sciences. As the Equal Opportunities Commission told us in its evidence, ‘degree choice clearly illustrates a gender bias with more than twice as many women as men studying English and French and four times as many men as women studying Physics and Computer Studies’.5 Women are under-represented at higher levels of study, especially in research degrees, where only 35 per cent of postgraduate research students are women.6

Participation by students from different socio-economic groups
7.7 Participation rates amongst students from the Registrar General’s socio-economic groups IV and V rose steeply during the late 1980s and early 1990s across the UK. But the ratio of participation between socio-economic groups did not change significantly. The share of participation in higher education by those from professional and managerial groups (groups I and II) is much higher than their share in the economically active population. The share by those from the three other socio-economic groups is lower than their share in the economically active population, as shown in Chart 7.1.

7.8 Men from socio-economic groups IV and V are particularly unlikely to participate. Once in higher education, those from socio-economic groups IV and V are more than twice as likely to be studying for a sub-degree qualification as those from groups I and II.7

7.9 The relative proportions of young people gaining qualifications for entry to higher education, their A level points scores and their propensity to enter higher education also vary with socio-economic group, as Table 7.2 shows.

Participation by students from different localities
7.10 Reflecting the differences in participation in higher education between socio-economic groups, participation rates vary widely with students’ home location. Here, the discrepancy in the achievements between regions and localities – and in some cases, between schools – is remarkable. In 1992, there was a 16 percentage point difference in the participation rate in full time education for 16 to 19 year olds between the regions with the highest and the lowest post-16 participation rates.9 Research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) shows that the probability of a young person entering a higher education institution is strongly related to the nature of the student’s more immediate neighbourhood. That probability increases sharply with neighbourhood affluence. The HEFCE has estimated that, if the participation from the neighbourhoods with the lowest rates increased to the national average, an extra 35,000 more young English people would enrol in higher education institutions.10

Participation by mature students
7.11 Mature students (those over the age of 21) are well represented: more than half of entrants to higher education are now mature and 30 per cent are over the age of 30. The figures are significantly higher in the 1992 universities than the pre-1992 universities, as Table 7.3 shows.

7.12 Older students are particularly strongly represented among part-time students: 63 per cent of first degree students studying part-time are over 30 and of those 30 and over, 55 per cent study part-time. Chart 7.2 shows the proportion of students who study part-time, by age.

7.13 There is debate about the extent to which this participation by mature students helps to redress the under-representation by some groups at younger ages. It is well-known that learning is very unevenly distributed among the adult population. But it would also seem that individuals from those groups which have not, traditionally, participated in higher education at 18 are increasingly doing so at later ages.

Participation by students with disabilities
7.14 There is a shortage of reliable information on which to base a secure judgement on whether participation by students with disabilities matches their presence in the population as a whole. The data available for higher education depends on whether or not students identify themselves as having a disability. Also, the count of students with disabilities is made on a different basis from the count of the general population. More significantly the data does not appear to record those who need assistance in order to study as a result of a disability, rather than those who have a disability irrespective of its impact on their studies.

7.15 The information available suggests that between two and four per cent of students in higher education have a disability.11 In comparison, the Labour Force Survey shows seven per cent of the 18–30 age group to have a long-standing disability.12 Estimates for schools indicate that between 2 and 20 per cent of pupils have a learning difficulty and/or disability at any one time during their school career. Just over five per cent of further education college students in England have been recorded as having a learning difficulty and/or disability.13 Students with disabilities are enrolled disproportionately strongly with the Open University, where the challenges of living away from home, physical access to study and so on, do not apply to the same extent.14 Overall, it appears that people with disabilities are probably under-represented in most institutions and across higher education as a whole.

Participation by ethnic minority students
7.16 Ethnic minorities as a whole are more than proportionally represented in higher education, compared to the general population. In 1994, 8.2 per cent of the 18 to 20 year olds in higher education were from ethnic minorities compared to 5.2 per cent in the population as a whole (although it has to be noted that the age profile of the ethnic minority population tends to be younger than that for the population as a whole). However, Bangladeshi women, and Afro-Caribbean men remain under-represented in higher education. Table 7.4 shows the available national data.

Rest of chapter