This is the £3.7 billion question

December 7, 2001

Stephen Court looks at what 50 per cent participation in higher education really means and asks if it is achievable.

Although education had a low profile in the chancellor's pre-budget report last week, it has not vanished from the top of the government's agenda.

The government believes that higher education has a key role to play in the country's economic future and in social cohesion. The report accompanying the pre-budget speech reiterates its ambition that 50 per cent of young people will have the chance to participate in higher education by 2010. The target was also prominent in last week's annual funding letter from education secretary Estelle Morris to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

In fact, higher education has rarely had such a high profile, with the government admitting that its policy on student finance brought more complaints during doorstep election campaigning than any other issue, and Tony Blair announcing a review of student finance measures within two months of being re-elected.

The two key political issues in higher education - student funding and increasing participation - are closely linked. The government is keen that under-represented students from working-class and disadvantaged backgrounds enter higher education. But these are precisely the people who are deterred by the prospect of graduating with a five-figure debt.

What does the 50 per cent target really mean, is it achievable and how will we know when and if it has been met? The government is yet to provide detailed answers.

Counting those who progress to some form of higher education sounds very different from the traditional measure, the age participation index. The API shows the number of under 21s living in Britain who are first-time, first-year undergraduates as a percentage of 18 and 19-year-olds in the population. It ignores part-time students, mature students and students on sub-degree courses. The index is therefore a narrow, rather artificial measure unsuited to the kind of students and courses the government has in mind.

In 1999, there was an API of 32 per cent. If you expand the age range to include first-year initial entrants up to the age of 29, then the API rises to 40 per cent. Add in part-time students, and the API rises to 48 per cent - only 48,000 places short of the 2010 target. The planned expansion of places in English universities by 2004, if filled, should take care of the rest.

It seems more likely that the government means that it wants half of all young people to have a higher education qualification or be working towards one by the time they are 30. The government's population projection is that in 2010 there will be 9.6 million people in the UK aged from 18 to 29. So the target is that 4.8 million people need to have gone on to higher education by then.

According to the Labour Force Survey in 2000, 29 per cent of under 30s had either graduated from a higher education institution or were on an undergraduate course. To get that proportion up to 50 per cent, the Association of University Teachers has calculated that an additional 670,000 student places need to be created by the end of the decade. This growth rate is partly because the age cohort is projected to rise by 7 per cent. In line with the additional student places recently announced for England, most will be part-time and many will be on sub-degree courses. The cost by 2010 will be £3.7 billion in real terms.

It remains to be seen whether there is the demand or the academic attainment among school-leavers to fill these extra places, or whether there will be graduate jobs for them to go to. But one thing is sure: if the government is to meet its target, it has to put adequate staff and learning resources in place and create appropriate student finance measures. The consequences of not doing so could be far-reaching.

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers. See for information about the AUT submission to the 2002 spending review.

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