Analysis: Labour can't find the right formula

June 29, 2001

Despite government rhetoric, students exhibit no desire to sign on to initiatives such as modern apprenticeships and foundation degrees. Alison Goddard reports.

Far fewer young people are going to university than the government anticipated, endangering its manifesto pledge that the majority of young people should enter higher education by 2010.

An unpublished funding council briefing paper, Supply and Demand in Higher Education , states: "Student demand has consistently failed to match government targets. Since 1993, full-time undergraduate students have been declining at a steady rate, with targets appearing to play little part in the rate of change.

"In each of the last six years, the government's planning targets have been undershot... The only exception was in 1997, which was the year before the student fee was introduced and saw an increase in student demand much greater than the trend."

The paper continues: "Participation in higher education varies considerably according to social and economic circumstances... It would take only a small increase in the participation of (people from areas where virtually no young people enter higher education) for there to be a significant impact on higher education numbers... (However) the timing of such a development is in doubt."

Difficulties in raising participation to 50 per cent will be compounded by an increase in the number of 18 to 21-year-olds during the next decade. The social composition of this group will change in favour of those who have not traditionally participated. (The social classes of the population of working age are based on a population of 36 million.) This week, education secretary Estelle Morris announced the introduction of school graduation ceremonies and vocational GCSEs and highlighted the role of modern apprenticeships, which aim to boost the number of young people remaining in education past the age of 16.

The funding council paper predates the announcement but expresses doubt that such measures would elevate enrolment in higher education by 2010.

The paper blames the stalling of growth on the "stagnation" of participation and achievement in schools and a lack of demand for vocational qualifications.

"Recent modest rises in the proportion of the cohort gaining five or more good GCSE grades do not seem to be feeding through to advanced level," the report says.

The Dearing review of higher education, which reported in 1997, suggested that a third of 18-year-olds are likely to take A levels. This figure was reached some years ago, and there are doubts about whether it can be raised further.

Separate studies cited in the report have shown that only 10 per cent of people who take GCSE-level qualifications after the age of 16 progress to A level or advanced General National Vocational Qualifications. Vocational qualifications could thus become an increasingly important entry route into higher education.

Any expansion of the modern apprenticeship scheme will not get more young people into higher education, the paper says.

"Modern apprenticeships... were intended to provide an alternative route to higher education as well as competence in the workplace. However, despite now accounting for more than 45 per cent of all participants in work-based training aged 16 to 19 (largely replacing existing vocational qualifications rather than constituting new demand in this area), so far they have made a negligible impact on... numbers.

"Any reforms to the work-based route as a means of progression into higher education have to be considered in the context of deep-seated barriers that exist in this area. Even with significant reforms to improve the current system, a realistic target for progression to higher education might be 10 per cent of those completing modern apprenticeships. This would constitute around 1 per cent of the 16-to-21 age group."

National demand for the foundation degree, announced by former education secretary David Blunkett in his University of Greenwich speech in February 2000, has yet to materialise.

The first of the two-year courses with transparent progression routes to a full degree are due to begin in September.

The study identifies how the government's attempts to micro-manage the expansion of higher education by creating ever more detailed targets have added to problems.

Last November's annual letter from the education secretary to the chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England lists targets for part-time and full-time places, at sub-degree, first-degree and postgraduate levels.

Much of this growth was expected to take place in further education colleges. Growth was supposed to come through buoyant demand for sub-degree qualifications and, in future, the foundation degree.

The separate targets for different modes and levels have proved particularly difficult to achieve.

For example, the government wanted an additional 23,000 people to start part-time undergraduate courses last September. But just 4,166 students took them up.

At the same time, there was a decline in the number of directly funded undergraduates and sub-degree students in further education colleges.

The growth at sub-degree level has failed to materialise. Hefce has allocated places at sub-degree level for delivery in further education colleges, but the places remain unfilled.

Overall, the report identifies four trends in student numbers in England over the five years to September 2000:

  • The growth in the number of full-time undergraduates was just 2.5 per cent. This group, by far the largest in higher education, expanded by 66 per cent in the previous five-year period. Applications from school-leavers made through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service have "plateaued" since 1997, despite a growth in the population of 16 to 18-year-olds
  • The total number of students increased by 5 per cent. This growth, which takes into account postgraduates and part-time undergraduates, was far slower than the 54 per cent rise for the five years from 1989 to 1994
  • The number of students on sub-degree courses declined steadily. The report states: "There is no evidence to suggest increased demand for the vocational part-time route"
  • The number of full-time mature students fell in the five years to September 2000, in marked contrast to the strong growth in this group in the previous five year period. Overall, the number of mature students remained constant. But the small growth in part-time mature students has been "mainly in qualifications relating to a wide range of healthcare professions, many of which were not previously recorded in higher education statistics".

Demand plummeted for courses in subjects such as engineering and technology and the physical sciences. The number of business and administration students grew slightly. There was a significant rise in the number of people studying computer science and subjects allied to medicine. But the latter may not represent real growth because of the new way students taking healthcare qualifications are counted.

The paper says six factors would, in theory, boost student demand for a university education:

  • Higher educational attainment among young people
  • Demographic trends, particularly the growth of those social classes with a high propensity to enter higher education
  • More alternative routes into higher education
  • Economic factors, including a sluggish employment market
  • A rise in perceived rates of return, taking into account demand for institutions that enhance the esteem in which their graduates are held and whether student debt represents an acceptable risk
  • More effective policy initiatives, including institutional schemes targeted at underrepresented groups.

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