As student participation grows, David Jobbins looks at how the figures add up
The dramatic expansion of Britain's universities in the past two decades is a matter of record. But, behind the scenes, a debate has raged over the true extent of that growth.
Student numbers have soared from fewer than 500,000 in the mid-1960s to more than 2 million (see pages II-III). At the same time, spending per student has slumped under a systematic squeeze by successive governments and is only just beginning to pick up.
Throughout most of this period, one measure - the Age Participation Index - has been used to measure the proportion of young people electing to enter higher education, proving to be a sensitive indicator of the success of Government policies and universities' ability to adapt. But this indicator has just gone through an unprecedented upheaval that coincided with the Labour Government's revised aspirations for the university system.
Before the expansion of universities, the API was the figure to watch - a gold standard, historically divided into three bands. The most sensitive and frequently quoted figure was the index for under-21 home-domiciled full-time and sandwich students entering higher education for the first time, expressed as a percentage of the 18 to 19-year-old population. It explicitly excluded over-21s and part-time students. While other indices measured 21 to 24-year-old full-time students (the younger mature entry index) and the over-25s (the older mature participation index), these were quietly abandoned in the early 1990s.
As the incoming Labour Government formulated its higher education policy, the emphasis was on "lifelong learning", and the API's concentration on "traditional" entrants became inadequate. After the 1997 election, officials focused on refining the API as a policy tool to define the 50 per cent target announced by Tony Blair in February 1999 and later enshrined in the 2002 election manifesto.
In 1999, the result was the short-lived Initial Entry Rate. This, Brian Ramsden, former chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency, suggested - in the absence of any published definitions - was simply an extension of the API, involving adding the sum of the percentages of English-domiciled first-time entrants to higher education in the UK at each age between 17 and 30.
The IER's short life was blighted by an admission by the education department in December 2001 that it had made a mistake in calculating the figures. It belatedly confessed that a "technical note" claiming a rate of 43 per cent for 1999-2000 was incorrect and should be closer to 40 per cent. Ramsden, who carried out an in-depth assessment of the IER in 2003, commented with evident surprise: "There seems... to be no clear, formal, publicly available and generally understood definition of the IER."
The IER extended the API in three important ways - it included part-time students and students aged over 21, and defined higher education as a course of one year or more above A level, leading to an award by a higher education institution or widely recognised awards body. In effect, it covered all universities in the UK and all students enrolling at further education colleges in England, thereby excluding students entering higher education courses at further education colleges in the rest of the UK.
Ramsden uncovered wide variations in Government interpretations of the 50 per cent target and the way in which the IER could be used to measure success in achieving it. In his review, he concluded that the IER, as calculated, measured neither "participation", the number who "benefit" from higher education or the percentage of 18 to 30-year-olds entering higher education, nor could it act as a predictor of participation. He argued that as the IER was being used as a measure of participation, not just entry, it should be redefined to fulfil that role.
In November last year, the Department for Education and Skills accepted the recommendation that the indicator should measure participation rather than entry, and only those students who attended their course for at least six months would count. It also accepted that the index should be renamed the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR). Entrants with prior higher education experience are excluded. Other exclusions are English-domiciled students in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish further education colleges; students in privately provided (and funded) institutions; and students studying outside the UK.
The department intends to include these groups when accurate data become available but best estimates suggest that their inclusion would not change the outcome significantly.
The first HEIPR was released in April, giving a provisional figure for 2002-03 of 44 per cent, 1 percentage point up on the 2001-02 figure. The associated timeline revealed that initial participation between 1999-2000 and 2002-03 has been rising more quickly for females than for males.
The story of the late 1990s and early 21st century is the widening gap between male and female enrolments. The number of females in higher education exceeded the number of men for the first time in 1996-97 and has been increasing since, while male enrolments showed a slight but demonstrable decline. Even a modest up-turn in the number of men enrolling on full-time courses in 2002-03 failed to dent the soaring number of women, who now comprise almost 60 per cent of the full-time student population.
Men still make up the majority of overseas undergraduate enrolments - but only just. Women have been narrowing the gap since the late-1990s.
While full-time and sandwich students are predominately on first-degree courses, the picture is reversed for part-time study. A minority is enrolled on first-degree courses, with more studying at postgraduate level, and a majority on other undergraduate courses.
The increase in numbers is, predictably, reflected in the increasing number of first degrees awarded.
Higher education trends 2004
All charts and tables