1 The first principle in the terms of reference given to the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education reads as follows:

"There should be maximum participation in initial higher education by young and mature students and in lifetime learning by adults, having regard to the needs of individuals, the nation and the future labour market. . ."

2 Ever since the Report of the Robbins Committee was published in 1963, rates of participation in higher education have run ahead of most expectations and of expert predictions. The speed and the scale of the expansion have been unprecedented within the UK and some outstanding achievements deserve to be recorded and celebrated. For example, the statistics show that within one generation the UK has achieved equal proportions of women and men in undergraduate HE and most ethnic minorities are now, if anything, slightly over-represented. There is, however, no room for complacency as some marked inequalities in educational opportunity remain. Social classes IV and V and disabled students are under-represented in higher education; this issue is dealt with by David Robertson in a parallel report. Moreover, the system has still to develop a strategy for lifelong learning. It is the task of this report to provide the evidence for the achievements, to specify where access and participation still needs to be widened, to discuss the possible causes of under-representation and to explore the options for policy.

3 The evidence which forms the basis of this report has three main sources. First and foremost, it consists of a large and expanding literature on participation in HE. The second body of evidence amounts to a considerable number of relevant books, reports and articles in press or in preparation, copies of which experts in the field have sent directly to the authors. Thirdly, we have drawn heavily on the papers written specifically for a seminar on "Widening Participation in HE" which was held in London in March, 1997 and on the discussions these papers provoked. The authors of this report owe a debt of gratitude to all those colleagues who have so generously given of their most up-to-date data, ideas, working papers and published articles.

4 We begin by drawing up a brief balance sheet of some of the main changes within the sector since the 1960s. In the eyes of A. H. Halsey, "the post-Robbins story has to be seen as a failed thrust towards mass higher education" (1995, p5), but to Tony Edwards the size and rapidity of the expansion in student numbers constitutes nothing less than "a cultural transformation within British society" (1997), because of the extension, to a sizeable proportion of each age cohort, of knowledge and understanding traditionally reserved for an elite. Two points need to be made here. First, the sheer scale of the expansion has not been fully appreciated outside the academic world. It has been well captured by Stephen Yeo: "There are now three times as many full-time teachers in HE as there were students in 1960. There are now more HE students in further education than there were university students at the time of the Robbins report in 1963" (1997). Moreover, the UK now has more postgraduate students (about 300,000) than there were undergraduates in the early 1960s (about 270,000); and the proportion of women students has doubled from under 25 per cent to 50 per cent (see Williams, 1997).

5 Notable though this expansion has been in making the UK a European leader in graduate output, we need to be reminded of the even greater advances made by countries such as Germany and Japan which have chosen the high skills route to capital accumulation through "high-level achievements by school children in maths and sciences, a broad participation in higher education, and a work system that requires a relatively intensive participation in training" (Ashton and Green, 1996, p 95). More specifically, the three Foundation targets in Education and Training for the year 2000 "have already been surpassed by Germany and Japan"(Dearing, 1996a, para 2.3).

6 Richard Hoggart has argued that the expansion of HE "confirmed that there was far more talent in the country than we had guessed or were willing, out of class-and-culture meanness, to recognise" (1996, p42). British definitions of human ability and of human educability have over the last century become progressively more generous, and comparisons of participation rates in England and Wales with Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (never mind France or Japan) suggest that elitist assumptions about a strictly limited "pool of ability" have proved to be false. In the words of Lindsay Patterson: "There is no fixed ‘pool’ of potential students: people respond to opportunities that are available" (1997, p44).

7 It is worth recalling that the Robbins Report firmly rejected the notion of a "so-called pool of ability" (1963, para 137). The Robbins Committee called for evidence on this topic from, among others, Jean Floud, a leading sociologist of education and from Philip Vernon, an eminent psychologist. After reviewing the evidence, Floud concluded as follows: "There is no iron law of the national intellect imposing an upper limit on the educational potential of the population. What only the few could do yesterday the many can do today. . . " (1963, p52). Vernon also reviewed the relevant research and began his Memorandum to the Committee by contesting the belief "that there exists in the population a fixed distribution or ‘pool’ of intelligence which limits. . . the numbers of individuals capable of higher education. " (1963, p170). He went on to argue that "something like 15 per cent of the population should . . . be capable of work of university standard" (ibid, p174).

8 The conclusions of Jean Floud and Philip Vernon have been vindicated and their predictions have been surpassed by the achievements of students in the intervening years. Two examples should suffice. The first A Level exams were held in 1951 and there were 36,677 candidates; by 1985 the comparable figure had increased tenfold to 379,503 (DES, Higginson Report, 1988, p47). Secondly, the A Level exam was developed with not more than 10% of the population in mind; by 1995 44% of young people up to the age of 21 had obtained two A Levels or vocational equivalents and the national target for the year 2000 is 60% (Dearing, 1996 b, para 8.5). The limited pool has been transformed into a copious flood and so there is no need for the caution shown by Sir Ron Dearing, when commenting on the remarkable increase in the proportion of the age group taking A Levels which tripled from 11 per cent in 1962 to 33 per cent in 1994: "This may be approaching the ceiling of academically-minded young people for whom A Levels were designed" (1995, p5).

9 The Robbins Committee also interpreted participation as "the percentage of the age group" entering higher education (1963, p12). Brian Ramsden, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), has argued that this definition of "participation" should now be broadened beyond simply enrolling on a course. To understand the "total participation" of minority groups in HE, he claims it is necessary to study "their achievements, their outcomes and their involvement in the higher education experience as a whole and this includes participation in teaching and in research" (1997). These proposals would take us far beyond counting the numbers of students from target groups who enrol on courses within HE; they offer, in fact, a redefinition of equality, from equality of access to equality of outcome, a tension which has permeated the huge debate about educational opportunity since the publication of James Coleman’s famous report on Equality of Educational Opportunity in 1966. Progress on this issue could be made by removing indefensible inequalities (eg the inequitable funding of part-time as opposed to full-time students) which represent a denial of opportunity.

10 So how is the HE system in the UK to be depicted in 1997? An optimistic assessment would point to a much enlarged and diversified system which is in comparison with most systems notably cost-effective, with relatively short study periods, low drop-out rates, high levels of graduate output, and a popular choice for foreign students who generate substantial earnings. A more critical evaluation would describe a system, mass in size but still elite in its values, crowded and under-funded, largely traditional in its pedagogy, with staff untrained in effective learning, senior management unskilled in introducing change and with too many of the pre-1992 universities1 espousing a culture unsympathetic to non-traditional groups. Both portrayals are caricatures, of course, but both also contain elements of welcome as well as disturbing accuracy.

11 We now turn to a detailed analysis of the evidence on the participation of certain groups, widely thought to be under-represented in HE: ethnic minorities, women and alternative students.2