Still room for improvement

September 22, 2000

The UK is moving towards mass higher education, and there has been progress in widening access. But opportunity remains unequally distributed. John Pratt reports on a Ucas study that reveals some worrying differences in access for different groups of students

Higher education in the United Kingdom is, it seems, moving inexorably towards a mass system. A study by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service of more than 1.6 million UK applicants accepted on full-time higher education courses over the past six years recorded that the number of accepted applicants rose by 21 per cent from 1994 to 1999 (from 251,292 up to 303,065). With increased numbers gaining A-level passes in the past month, the trend looks set to continue this year.

The Ucas study also showed progress in widening participation across the social spectrum. There has been increasing take-up of higher education by those from traditionally disadvantaged groups. Between 1994 and 1999, the number of black applicants accepted to degree courses rose by 40 per cent, the number of Asians by 53 per cent. There were smaller increases (28 and 23 per cent) for those groups on higher national diploma courses.

There has been an improvement in participation from applicants from lower socioeconomic groups, too. Acceptances on degree courses of applicants with parents in social classes IV and V (partly skilled or unskilled manual occupations) increased by a quarter over the six years, and to HND courses by 15 per cent. Because this is a slightly higher rate of growth than the professional and "intermediate" groups (social classes I and II), the acceptances from social classes IV and V have risen marginally as a proportion of the total to just over 9 per cent in 1999. Using data from the Mosaic classification of "lifestyle" groups based on post-codes, the study shows that acceptances to degree courses from those living in council flats rose by 45 per cent over the six years and by 7 per cent from 1998 to 1999.

But things are not always what they seem. Opportunity is still not equally distributed. The Ucas study reveals worrying differences in access for different groups of students. Women now constitute a majority in entry to full-time higher education. By 1999, women accounted for 54 per cent of acceptances to degree courses and for more than 40 per cent on HND courses. With last month's rise in the proportion of females gaining A-level passes, this dominance is likely to rise, heightening concerns about the loss of opportunities for male students.

Even among ethnic minorities there are disparities. Black applicants accepted on degree courses represented only 3 per cent of the total whose ethnicity was known in 1999, while Asians accounted for 10 per cent. There is a higher proportion of ethnic minority accepted applications on HND courses. In 1999, they accounted for 20 per cent of acceptances whose ethnicity is known. And the statistic that 15 per cent of accepted applicants whose ethnicity is known are from ethnic minorities is substantially higher than their 4 per cent representation in the 1991 census. Even allowing for change since then, and for differentials in age groups, this suggests there is now under-representation of white entrants to full-time higher education.

There must be continuing worries about social class disparities. Despite the increases in numbers from the lower socioeconomic groups, students from managerial and professional homes still dominate higher education. They constituted more than a third of the 1999 entry, although they make up only a fifth of the UK population. The proportion of accepted applicants to degree courses with parents in manual occupations declined over the six years of the Ucas study because of a drop of more than 1,000 in the numbers from the skilled manual group. The 9 per cent from social classes IV and V is not much better than that of the time of the Robbins report in the 1960s - and that reported little change from the 1920s. In terms of the Mosaic lifestyle groups, a student from a high-income family is seven times more likely than one from a council flat to be accepted on a full-time degree course.

Other analyses in the report suggest further and more subtle differences between the opportunities for different kinds of people. The Ucas data support the widely held view that tuition fees and student loans introduced after 1997 have put off mature students more than those from the traditional age groups. The number of accepted applicants to full-time degree courses aged 22 and over has fallen by more than 7,000 since 1997, from more than 49,200 to just under 42,000.

The trend is still downwards, too. The numbers in 1999 are fewer than in 1998. They represented just under 14 per cent of the acceptances to degree courses in 1999, compared with just over 16 per cent in 1997.

One of Ucas's interests in the report is the distance between accepted applicants' home addresses and their place of study. The data reveal, perhaps unsurprisingly, that younger students are prepared to travel farther to study than older ones. The average travel distance for those aged under 21 accepted to degree courses in 1999 was nearly 113km, more than twice as far as the 55km for those 21 and over. Men are prepared to travel marginally more (nearly 106km) than women (98km). Those accepted to HND courses travel on average less (61km). Students from higher social classes are also prepared to travel farther.

A similar pattern is demonstrated by the Mosaic analysis, with accepted applicants to degree courses from high-income families travelling nearly 119km, and those from council flats travelling only 45km. White applicants are prepared to travel more (an average 111km on degree courses) than those from ethnic minorities (53km for black applicants, 63km for Asians).

Distance travelled is related to students' home region. Accepted applicants to degree courses in the Southeast and Southwest of England travelled farther (132km and 153km respectively) than those from other English regions and from Greater London. Those in Scotland travelled noticeably less (about 80km), especially in the densely populated Glasgow and Motherwell areas (about 40km), reflecting the Scottish tradition of studying at a local university.

Higher education is getting more local. Overall, distances travelled have fallen, from nearly 119km for those on degree courses in 1994 to 101km in 1999. The traditional ideal of students choosing to study anywhere in the UK is becoming the preserve of the young, wealthier white male.

Even if Britain is heading for mass higher education, over the past few years it has been doing so rather slowly. The 1999 total of 303,065 accepted applicants is still below the all-time high figure of 303,318 in 1997. The Ucas data support the view that tuition fees and loans have affected take-up of full-time higher education. Progress towards widening opportunity is still patchy. The study shows improvements in the pattern of participation, but accidents of birth and circumstance still affect the take-up of higher education. The government still has some way to go to fulfil the promise of Tony Blair's "education, education, education".

John Pratt is professor of institutional studies at the University of East London. Ucas Statistical Bulletin on Widening Participation, Edition 2000, Pounds 15 from Ucas Distribution. Tel: 01242 544610.

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