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
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
Participation by students
from different socio-economic groups
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 students 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
7.12 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.
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
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 1830 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