University entry reaches plateau

Tories claim it will take a century to reach Labour's 50% participation target. Rebecca Attwood reports

April 3, 2008

The proportion of young adults entering higher education has stalled, according to new data.

Government figures released last week led to Tory claims that it would take a century to hit Labour's target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education, which Labour pledged to reach by 2010.

Data from the Office for National Statistics reveal that the higher education initial participation rate was 39.8 per cent among 17 to 30-year-olds in 2006-07, barely higher than the 39.2 per cent in 1999-2000.

The figure peaked at 42.5 per cent in 2005-06, when there was a surge in applications as students rushed to enrol before the introduction of £3,000 top-up fees.

There is also a lower participation rate among young men than at any time in the past seven years, with the latest figures showing a rate of 34.8 per cent, down from 37.4 per cent in the previous year and 37.1 per cent in 1999-2000.

The initial participation rate is calculated by adding together the percentages at each age entering higher education for the first time, which in 2006-07 ranged from 20.2 per cent among 18-year-olds to 0.6 per cent among 30-year-olds.

David Willetts, Shadow Universities Secretary, claimed that at the current rate it would take until 2124 to reach the 50 per cent target. He said: "If we are to succeed in getting more young people to university, then we need to improve standards in our schools and change attitudes to university."

Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, attributed the drop to a fall in applications in 2006-07, the first year of the new fees regime in England.

Mr Rammell said: "We have known for a long time that applications fell in 2006-07, but acceptances have recovered strongly ... A year from now we expect the counterbalancing rises of 2007-08 to increase the participation rate."

Universities UK said the Government's priority had now shifted to 40 per cent of adults holding a higher education qualification.

- The number of students entering Scotland's universities from schools with the worst record for progression to higher education is dropping despite efforts to widen participation, new figures show.

According to data in a Scottish Funding Council report, 19 per cent of pupils from schools in the bottom quintile for progression to higher education went on to university in 2002-03, but the figure fell to 14 per cent in 2006-07.

A Scottish Government spokesman said the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged was "unacceptable".

The figures are contained in the SFC report Measures of Success, which shows that 47.1 per cent of young Scots began some form of higher education last year. That figure marks a recovery from a slide that saw access dip to 46.4 per cent in 2004-05 after peaking at 51.5 per cent in 2001-02.

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