Leader: Time to focus on the real numbers

March 24, 2006

Another report, another debate on the Government's 50 per cent target. The Higher Education Policy Institute says there is little chance that half of all young people will enter university or college by 2010; Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, says that is too pessimistic. Most academics (let alone the wider public) will not care who is right: the target was an artificial one and whether or not it is reached will depend as much on demography as on the success of efforts to widen participation.

What ought to concern the higher education world much more are the prospects for the years beyond 2010. We know that the cohort of 18 and 19-year-olds, which still produces the majority of full-time students, will become much smaller in that period. Yet there has been precious little discussion of the consequences for universities and colleges. The 2003 White Paper barely mentioned the issue, despite being called The Future of Higher Education , and there remains no sense of urgency about it even though there will be hardly any growth in the age group beyond 2008 and a steep decline from 2010.

When similar conditions faced higher education at the end of the 1970s, they became the subject of an extended national debate that spawned two major reports. Although a change of government prevented the implementation of policies that emerged from those discussions, universities and national bodies were at least fully aware of the approaching challenges. With the undergraduate entrants of 2010 already at secondary school, there is no time to lose in addressing those challenges again.

The Hepi report will make sobering reading for universities and colleges that struggle to recruit students. It holds out little hope of a significant upturn in the demand for places as a result of school reforms.

There would have to be a step change in the motivation and achievement of boys, which higher education would be rash to rely on at this stage. And the researchers pour cold water on the prospect of overseas students filling the gaps, since most European countries face even steeper demographic decline and will be anxious to keep their students at home.

The one saving grace - as it was in the 1970s - may be the class differences that ministers are so anxious to eradicate. Because the steepest decline in the birthrate is among socio-economic groups whose children are least likely to take degrees, universities may escape the full impact. Instead of annual intakes dropping by almost 80,000, the figure might be nearer 30,000 - still bad news for some institutions, but not catastrophic. The 50 per cent target (if it still exists) may be hit in the process, but that will be as irrelevant then as it is now. The debate that should be taking place is about meeting long-term social, economic and institutional needs.

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