Olga Wojtas on the society for research into Higher Education conference
The Labour government has failed to boost participation in higher education, with the bulk of expansion taking place under the Conservatives, according to John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University.
Professor Field, who was addressing the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education at Glasgow University, said figures on broad trends in age participation, published in the parliamentary review, showed participation rising for all social groups in the early 1990s, reaching a plateau in 1997 and then falling back slightly before recovering.
The fall probably reflected the "negative impact" of tuition fees, Professor Field said, and the overall 33 per cent participation rate in 2000 was no higher than in 1996, the year before Labour regained power.
Inequality had persisted throughout the 1990s with very little perceptible change, he said.
"Rather crudely, it might be said that the main impact of the post-Robbins period on equity has been the extension of higher education to women."
In 1991, 55 per cent of children from professional backgrounds went into higher education, 36 per cent from intermediate groups, 22 per cent from skilled non-manual backgrounds and 11 per cent from skilled manual backgrounds.
The rise in participation by 2000 was "broadly even", to 76 per cent among professional groups, 48 per cent among intermediate groups, 33 per cent among skilled non-manual worker backgrounds and 19 per cent among skilled worker families.
Scotland already appeared to have met the 50 per cent participation target set for the end of the decade, but studies confirmed that non-traditional students north of the border tended to cluster disproportionately in non-degree courses in further education colleges.
Colleges gave policy-makers an important means of widening access, said Professor Field, but this left the goal of equity elusive. Non-traditional students risked going into an "academic ghetto", gaining qualifications that carried less value than those enjoyed by students from more conventional backgrounds.
Researchers and politicians had mainly looked at participation in terms of access, but it was more crucial to look at participation in terms of achievement.
Figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that in 15 institutions where the proportion of students expected to get a degree was significantly below the benchmark, there was a strong link between poor results and the proportion of non-traditional entrants.