UK ‘still has significant issues’ on HE participation

As latest headline figures are released, concerns are raised over groups still failing to gain access to HE

September 25, 2019
Source: Alamy

The UK higher education system is still failing to reach a “stubbornly large” group of people despite it hitting a 50 per cent participation rate last year, data from the world’s most industrialised nations suggest.

The Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR), which measures the likelihood of someone going into tertiary education by the age of 30, reached 50 per cent for England in 2016-17, meeting the target famously set by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1999.

Headline figures in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest Education at a Glance report, published this month, also show that the UK has one of the highest enrolment rates for 19- and 20-year-olds entering higher education.

But with the latest HEIPR for 2017-18 due to be published on 26 September, questions have been raised about whether such measurements are masking underlying issues with the country’s participation rate.

OECD figures highlighted by Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre of Global Higher Education, show that the UK actually has one of the lowest proportions of 18- to 24-year-olds in education of all kinds.

The UK had about 43 per cent of this age group in education in 2018 against an OECD average of 53 per cent and an average of 57 per cent for the 23 OECD members that are also in the European Union. In Germany, the figure was 62 per cent and in the Netherlands it was 65 per cent.

Professor Marginson told the recent launch of Education at a Glance that in part this was because the UK had comparatively short tertiary education courses compared with some other countries.

But he also said that the UK’s participation rate was “not quite as strong as we sometimes think it is” with there still being a “stubbornly large component of people” – often from very disadvantaged backgrounds – who simply do not get the opportunity to enter higher education.

It was “worth keeping in mind that [the UK’s] domestic participation still has significant issues”, Professor Marginson said.

Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network, said that some other countries had better-defined non-academic routes into tertiary education and this is where the UK may need to improve.

“There is no doubt that there is a group of learners that we fail to reach. I think we still fail to connect with certain groups and our own domestic data show us that fairly clearly,” he said.

“You might suggest that higher professional education or more diverse forms of HE is perhaps something we are lacking. We do have a system that focuses very much on academic forms of higher education and other systems don’t.” Dr Atherton pointed to the Netherlands and Germany as two examples.

He also said that better comparative international data may be needed in order to get to the heart of whether the UK was failing disadvantaged groups to a greater extent than other nations.

“What you would really like to see is cross-country comparison on the kind of access-related, income-related or socio-economic factors that we feel are really important, but that is not always there,” Dr Atherton said.

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