The government's high-profile drive to increase participation in higher education may be running out of steam, according to the latest official figures.
This year's enrolments to higher education institutions were up by less than 1 per cent on last year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Hesa figures confirm it is the lowest annual rise since 1995.
The figures, published last Friday, also highlight distortions in the system. There has been almost no increase in the number of students in higher education institutions doing full-time first degrees. There is a continuing slump in mature and male undergraduates, and there are falls in key subjects. Postgraduates, overseas students and female undergraduates account for most of the growth in numbers.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said the 1 per cent rise was proof that students were not deterred by the financial arrangements, introduced in 1998, which included tuition fees and the abolition of grants. She also pointed to this year's 2.7 per cent rise in the number of United Kingdom undergraduates under 21. She said the fall in mature students was longstanding and that measures were being introduced to tackle it.
Hesa's annual enrolments bulletin reveals a long-term decline in the numbers of mature students studying full-time for first degrees. The number of over 25s in this category fell by nearly a quarter between 1995 and this academic year. But the two biggest falls happened in 1997, the year Labour was returned, down by more than 6 per cent, and in 1998, by nearly 13 per cent.
Part-time, over-25s enrolments on first degrees dropped by 46 per cent between 1995 and 1999. But again, the biggest single annual decrease happened in 1997 when enrolments fell by more than 50 per cent. This year saw no change.
Full-time enrolments by 21 to 24-year-olds on first-degree courses fell by a fifth between 1995 and 1999, with no appreciable rise this year compared with last. Part-time enrolments in the same category fell by nearly a third. The single biggest annual fall for part-timers occurred in 1997, when enrolments fell by a third.
Theresa May, shadow education secretary, said: "The government is clinging to one or two figures that make it look like its higher education policy is a success and ignoring all the others, which show it is a failure."
Evan Harris, higher education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said:
"There is a stall in expansion. The government has pressed universities to expand with inadequate funding."
Hesa figures show that relatively fewer men are enrolling at university. There was a 9 per cent drop in full and part-time, first-degree enrolments by men between 1995 and 1999. Meanwhile, female enrolments rose by nearly 1 per cent. Again, the single biggest annual fall in male enrolments, nearly 8 per cent, took place in 1997.
An education department spokesman said that much of the fall in male enrolments could be explained by changes in the way student numbers were reported. He said the "inconsistency" could be removed by adding full and part-time enrolments to total "other undergraduate" enrolments, such as higher national diploma students. But this still reveals a drop of nearly 1 per cent. On the same basis, female enrolments rose by nearly 14 per cent.
Female enrolments in law rose by more than per cent for the period between 1994-95 and this academic year, compared with a 10 per cent rise for males. In engineering and technology, female enrolments slipped by 8 per cent, while male enrolments fell by nearly 12 per cent.
FE recovery plan; Broadcast fails to pull men, page 3