Growing numbers of people in developed countries are entering tertiary education but the gap is not shrinking between different social groups' access to it, a study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has revealed.
Britain is one of a number of countries where the proportion of young adults from poorer backgrounds going to college or university is rising more slowly, at 1 per cent a year, than the general increase of 1.8 per cent a year.
Better-off students in OECD member states may be getting a disproportionate share of extra public funding because more take high-status, expensive courses.
Enrolments in 15 of the OECD's 29 member states monitored rose by 40 per cent in the first six years of the 1990s, far more than could be explained by demographic factors.
In most countries "while enrolments of students from low social and economic groups have increased, those from groups already well-represented in tertiary education have increased by more", the report, Education Policy Analysis 1999, says. "The net result is a distribution of students which looks about the same in terms of social and economic background as before expansion."
There is a trend towards older students entering tertiary education later because they either missed out or may be returning.
But changing patterns have not led to the dethroning of the university as the establishment of choice. In many countries enrolments have expanded more rapidly than non-university ones.