Analysis: Do we need the 50% target?

January 3, 2003

What must the government address in its upcoming strategy paper? Alan Thomson opens a series on the vital issues by asking whether ministers' aims to get half the population into HE are achievable or desirable, while Phil Baty looks at the prospects for a return to student grants

It will take about 400,000 more students, taught by about 17,000 extra lecturers, to hit the government's 50 per cent higher education participation target by 2010.

What the government must sort out in the forthcoming strategy document is how many more students must be recruited in each of the eight years up to 2010, and how the system will manage and afford to teach them. The signs are that there will be little or no money for growth beyond the extra student numbers bid for by universities between 2003 and 2006.

Education secretary Charles Clarke is ostensibly sticking to the 50 per cent target, so most of the growth will take place after the spending review period, namely in 2006-10. The 2010 target is for half of all 18-year-olds to start a higher education course for the first time by the time they are 30.

At present, the cumulative proportion of people entering higher education for the first time between the ages of 18 and 30 is 41 per cent. The bulk of them, 34.5 per cent, will do so aged between 18 and 21.

By comparison, only 2 per cent of to 30-year-olds will start a course for the first time before or at aged 30.

Expansion is, therefore, certain to be driven by school-leavers. The government believes that this will be fuelled by continuously improving performance at GCSE.Its target is that the number of 16-year-olds gaining five GCSEs at grades A to C, or their equivalent, will rise by 2 percentage points each year up to 2006. By then it is hoped that a quarter of school pupils will be passing with five good grades.

The more pupils with five good passes at GCSE, the more will go on to sit A levels - and there is a close correlation between those gaining A levels and participation in higher education.

It means that many of the additional students will enter university towards the end of the decade. This will be as a result of the minimum two-year delay between any rise in the numbers passing with good GCSEs and their being ready to start a higher education course.

Universities UK reckons it will need to recruit an extra 30,000 students a year over the next spending review period, 2003-06, to meet the 2010 target. The system must be expanded now to cope with the higher numbers of students expected.

On the face of it, 400,000 more students sounds huge, being enough to fill 20 large universities. But the expansion target relates to the period 1999-2000 to 2009-10. An extra 400,000 undergraduates and other higher education students on top of the 1 million in England in 1999-2000 (the 50 per cent target is not relevant to devolved Scotland, which has already exceeded 50 per cent) is a near 37 per cent increase.

So, the annual increase will have to average 3.7 per cent for the government to meet its target. Between 1999-2000 and 2000-01 (figures for 2001-02 are not available) there was an 8 per cent rise in total UK undergraduate and other higher education student numbers in England. On the basis of this, the target looks achievable.

But the government wants to ensure that a large proportion of the additional students entering higher education come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Both former education secretary Estelle Morris and higher education minister Margaret Hodge have said that the expansion will be judged a failure unless it also widens participation. Mr Clarke backs this view to the extent that he is downplaying the 50 per cent target, though not abandoning it, to focus on widening participation.

UUK said that universities needed an extra £420 million over the next three years to cope with the additional students, plus £65 million over the same period for access premiums for poorer students.

Teaching those extra students would require about 17,000 extra staff, based on projections by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Universities would also need £1.2 billion between 2003 and 2006 for staff pay and development and training, UUK said. Added to this they would need an extra £3.9 billion for teaching infrastructure over the next three years.

Improved financial support for the poorest students is a prerequisite for expansion and widening participation.

The government is due to publish the results of its student funding review as part of, or alongside, its strategy document.

The current system of student loans and tuition fees has done nothing to increase the proportion of people from the lowest socioeconomic groups going into higher education.

Less than 20 per cent of people from part-skilled and unskilled backgrounds enter higher education, compared with at least three-quarters of the sons and daughters of professional parents.

The gap between the higher socioeconomic groups and the lowest widened throughout the 1990s as students from the more affluent classes filled the additional places made available.

Pros and cons

Ruth Lea, head of policy for the Institute of Directors
"The 50 per cent target is ludicrous. We already have an enormous number of graduates and there are not enough jobs for them. The more we push young people into higher education, the more vocational training is relegated. Widening participation is different. I am keen on bursaries for people from less well-off backgrounds."

James Binks, learning and skills policy adviser for the Confederation of British Industry
"Employers need more skilled people at all levels, particularly graduates. The CBI's Employment Trends Survey 2002 shows that almost half of employers say they will recruit more graduates over the next three years. The CBI supports the government's aim to offer higher education to half of young people by 2010, providing it is not at the expense of quality."

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK
"Universities UK supports the government's expansion aims because we believe all who stand to benefit from higher education should be encouraged to do so. But widening participation is a long-term process, and progress depends on coordinated initiatives by all stakeholders in education. There are a number of factors affecting participation largely outside universities' control. Adequate funding is also vital."

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality for the Association of Colleges
"We support widening participation but we would want routes and approaches that suited all learners. Further education should be central to the expansion. That requires some effective partnerships and recognition of the importance of further education in those partnerships."

Peter Whitehouse, corporate development manager for Devonport Management Ltd
"With a total workforce of almost 5,000, DML employs almost 1,500 skilled industrial craftsmen and women who have completed apprenticeships. A business such as ours has to maintain a balanced intake of employees across all categories. Any drive to expand higher education is a good thing, but it should recognise that there is still a skilled UK manufacturing base to be sustained."

Graham Able, headmaster of Dulwich College, a London independent school, and chairman-elect of the Headmasters' Conference
"If 50 per cent of the age cohort is educated beyond 18 in some way or another, I would say I support the target. But I do not think that 50 per cent of the age cohort will be best served by doing traditional academic university courses. What we will need is a variety of post-18 courses to suit people with different abilities."

Ryan Butler, a sixth-former at Parmiter's School, near Watford, wants to study dentistry. He will be the first person in his family to go to university
"Universities should be more exclusive because too many kids are getting on to courses with, maybe, qualifications that aren't good enough. More able children should go to university. It shouldn't matter about their background. Can't people be trained on the job, with companies paying for them to go to university, rather than government?"

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