Analysis of data from the Economic and Social Research Council’s Understanding Society longitudinal survey shows that the proportion of people between 22 and 34 with degrees has risen by 8.6 per cent per cent compared to those between 37 and 49.
However, this rise was not evenly distributed across social classes, according to the study led by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, drawing on data on almost 34,000 people.
The proportion of those with degrees whose parents had “intermediate occupations” such as clerical or sales jobs is more than 11 per cent higher in the younger cohort.
But among those whose parents hold “routine and manual occupations”, the growth in the proportion with a degree is only 5 per cent.
Peter Elias, a professor in the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research and one of the co-authors of the analysis, said the results partly reflected the decline in manual occupations and the increase in white-collar occupations over the last 40 years.
“Nonetheless, given the remarkable increase in the participation of young people in higher education that has taken place over the last 20 years, the brief analysis presented here reveals little evidence that the much-vaunted policy ambition to provide better access to higher education to those from less privileged backgrounds has been successful.”
Further analysis of the data is planned, including an examination of variations by gender. Last year the universities and science minister David Willetts was criticised for suggesting that the expansion in higher education had largely benefited the daughters of the middle class, rather than working-class men.