Participation in higher education

The DfE recently reported on the time series regarding entry into higher education. The data was updated for 2016/17 starts and can be found at There are a number of useful tables that show the continued growth in participation by eighteen to twenty one year old either directly from another education establishment or after a gap. In the latest year that data are available for, 28% of the 652,000 eighteen year olds went straight into higher education. They were joined by 11.9% of nineteen year olds and 3.2% of those aged 20.

All the percentages up for all age groups and the percentage comes to 49.8% that is described as the initial participation rate (IPR). As might be expected, a greater percentage of eighteen year old women than men go directly into higher education; some 32.1% of women compared with 24.1% of men. As might be expected, the IPR for women is much higher overall at 56.1% compared with 43.1% for men. However, the gap tails off with age as numbers form the year group starting in 2016/17 tailed away. The IPR is still below that of many other G7 countries.

Sadly, the IPR for part-time students has yet to regain the percentages seen before the fee increase to more than £9,000. Some of this potential group of students may have transferred to degree level apprenticeships, but it is to be feared that part-time higher education at least at the undergraduate level, remains out of favour and is not being marketed by the higher education sector.

A small percentage of those entering higher education do so through the further education sector rather than at a university. The further Education sector accounts for just less than four percent of IPR for higher education and seems to be growing slowly. There is also no gender gap amongst those taking the FE route into higher education.

I couldn’t find a comment yet from HEPI, The Higher Education Policy Institute, about these data from the DfE. However, the concern for the higher education sector must be that they are facing a few years when the number of eighteen year olds in the cohort will be falling. If the IPR of the age group remains flat, then that actually means fewer students looking to enrol. This might partly account for the rash of unconditional offers as institutions seeks to plan their numbers, and hence their income, as far ahead as possible. The 17-19 age group in 2106/17 was around 20,000 smaller as a cohort than the previous year.

No doubt, if there is also a loss of interest from EU or other overseas students, then some courses and indeed faculties might find their cash position under pressure during the next few years. How legitimate is it to use tuition fee cash from popular subjects to support less financially viable departments? This is an interesting question that students as consumers might well ask. If you put a philosophy and ethics of business course in the business studies degree it may well be necessary to support the continuation of the philosophy department. If you don’t why should a future business mogul pay to support the department if it has no impact on his course?

One answer is, you are buying a university experience and not that of your course alone.


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