According to a report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, published on 24 April, higher education participation rates for people aged 17 to 30 rose from 46 per cent in 2010-11 to 49 per cent in 2011-12 – the final year before tuition fees nearly trebled to up to £9,000 a year.
The rise in the provisional participation rate – the likelihood of a UK student entering higher education by the age of 30 – can be partly explained by the fewer number of students deferring university study until 2012-13, with many students seeking to gain a place under the previous fee regime.
Nonetheless, the spike in demand for higher education in 2011-12 edges the UK close the 50 per cent target set by the previous Labour government.
Indeed, the report, titled Participation Rates in Higher Education 2006-07 to 2011-12 (provisional), adds that the UK may have passed the 50 per cent figure if students attending private higher education institutions were included.
More than 7,500 English students enrolled at private providers in 2011-12, possibly adding an extra 1.1 per cent to the 49 per cent participation rate, but these students were not included because the Student Loans Company was unable to ascertain their ages, the report says.
The participation rate for women overall was 55 per cent, compared with 45 per cent for men in 2011-12, the report adds.
Les Ebdon, director for fair access, welcomed the report’s findings, but said he had concerns over a sharp fall in older students in recent years.
“We know from entry and application data under the new system that demand for full-time higher education remains high among young people,” said Professor Ebdon, who heads the Office for Fair Access.
“However, I am very concerned that demand from mature learners, and for part-time study, has fallen significantly, with the number of undergraduate part-time entrants falling by 40 per cent since 2010-11,” he added.
“The reasons behind the drop in part-time entrants need to be understood to help reverse the trend, so I am pleased that Universities UK will be conducting a review into this issue, following a request from the minister [for universities and science].”
The report coincides with a report by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, in which 46,000 GCSE, sixth-form and university students were quizzed about their attitudes towards higher education.
The study, titled Highlights from applicant surveys conducted in 2012, found that students wanted more information from an earlier age about the content of university courses, the A levels needed to secure a place, student finance and other post-18 options such as apprenticeships, study abroad or gap years.
Professor Ebdon said the report showed potential students are still not getting the information they need to help them make informed choices about higher education.
“Good information, advice and guidance is an intrinsic part of the work that universities and colleges do to reach out to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and encourage them to aim for higher education,” he said.
“Good information and advice is essential if students are to understand that no one has to pay fees upfront, and that there is help with living costs, particularly for lower income students.”