One in four in England think fewer people should attend university

Public survey reveals divides among voting, class, age and educational background on the value of higher education

July 20, 2021
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More than a quarter of the public would like the proportion of people attending university to be reduced from its current level, a survey has revealed.

The poll by the UPP Foundation and Hepi of more than 2,000 adults in England found that 27 per cent would prefer a smaller proportion of the population to attend university than there currently is.

In comparison, 17 per cent said they would like a greater proportion and 36 per cent said it should stay the same.

The survey of the public’s attitudes towards higher education found that when broken down by age there was a stark difference in attitudes towards the expansion or contraction of higher education.

It showed that 43 per cent of over 65-year-olds and 37 per cent of those who are aged between 55 and 64 say there should be fewer people attending university than currently, and 25 per cent of those aged 45 to 54 said the same.

This was compared with 15 per cent for both the 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 age groups, and a quarter of those in the latter group believe there should be a greater proportion.

The poll also found that just over half – 54 per cent – of respondents believe society currently values a university education too highly.

The number of young people attending university in England has become a contentious issue in recent years, with the universities minister stating last year that the push to get more students through the door had led to a reduction in standards at some institutions.

The survey also looked at another controversial issue in higher education: “decolonising” the curriculum. It found that nearly a third of the public do not support decolonising the curriculum, compared with nearly a quarter who support it. It also found that 26 per cent of people believe that the Western point of view should be prioritised, compared with 20 per cent who disagreed, although 43 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

However, the survey showed that if the language framing the conversation was changed, so did attitudes: 67 per cent agreed that universities should teach students about people, events and subjects from all around the world and ensure all groups are represented fairly.

It also revealed political fault lines when it came to attitudes towards universities. The survey found that people who voted for either the Conservative party or to leave the European Union held less positive views of universities than those who voted Labour or wanted to remain.

The poll revealed that 35 per cent of Leave voters agreed that universities have a positive impact on the way things are going in the country, compared with 53 per cent of Remain voters.

The split between Conservative and Labour voters was less pronounced, with 41 per cent and 49 per cent respectively believing that universities have a positive impact, and a quarter of Conservative voters thinking that universities were “going in the total wrong direction”, compared with 18 per cent of Labour supporters. 

Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, said the results demonstrate that universities need to better communicate with the wider public, as it was “shocking” that about a third of people in England have never visited an English university, and a further 32 per cent have not visited one in the past five years. This increased for those in the lowest socio-economic groups, with 53 per cent reporting that they had never visited an English university.

“How universities talk about their work and their changing role in society matters a great deal. To win over hearts and minds, their governors, staff and students should use inclusive language, do more to explain their contribution to the country and invite more people on to campus,” he said.

The survey did find that 84 per cent were either very or quite proud that a Covid vaccine had been developed by a British university, and 72 per cent agreed that university research was one of the best things produced in the UK as a country.

Overall, more people – 33 per cent – said getting a degree was important, compared with those who said it was unimportant – 23 per cent, and when asked if they would want to go to university if they were leaving secondary school now, 46 per cent said they would want to, while 26 per cent said they would not.

Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, said the polling shows that “the way we talk about contentious issues, such as decolonisation, can narrow or broaden appeal”.

“This is an important lesson. There are gaps in support for the sector based on voting intention, age and class. If these gaps widen, universities will face a difficult future,” he said.

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