For the first time since Tony Blair set the target almost exactly twenty years ago, a majority of young people are attending university.
According to figures released by the Department for Education, 50.2% were accepted for entry to higher education institutions in the year 2017/18, a 0.3% increase from the previous year.
The shift demonstrates a rapid cultural change in Britain since the 1980s, during which only 15% stayed on to full-time higher education. By the 1990s, 25% were going to university.
The female-male participation gap remained stable, with a 12.5 percentage point difference between the proportion of women attending university (56.6%) and men (44.1%). This means that the participation rate of men attending university is lower than the same figure for women over a decade ago.
Education Secretary @GavinWilliamson is asking universities to do more for disadvantaged students & to do everything they can to ensure students complete their courses and reduce dropout rates 🎓
— DfE (@educationgovuk) September 26, 2019
In September 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a speech to the Labour Party conference in which he committed to ‘a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century‘, calling university the ‘key to success‘. Twelve years after he left office, his goal has been achieved.
However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has criticised universities for failing to widen access to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who remain 2.4 times less likely to attend. He said that UK universities must ‘up their game‘ in this regard, and must also reduce their drop-out rates which signify ‘wasted potential‘. According to the Guardian, half of universities in England have fewer than ‘5% poor white students‘ in their cohort.
It is simply not good enough that white working class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others.
Whilst the rise in student numbers has been widely welcomed, concerns have been raised about ‘degree class inflation‘ after an Office for Students report found that 70% of students who achieved below three Ds at A Level graduated university with top-class degrees. According to Susan Lapworth, director of competition and registration at the OfS, grade inflation ‘threaten[s]to devalue a university education in the eyes of employers and potential students‘. In addition, a review commissioned by Theresa May into universities chaired by former banker Philip Augar has found that many UK degrees are ‘terrible value for money and leave graduates earning less than school-leavers‘.
These concerns come as a Sky News poll has revealed that most parents would prefer their children to obtain an apprenticeship rather than a university degree, and a report by City and Guilds has found that dwindling apprenticeship numbers in the next decade will lead to a ‘chronic shortage of available qualified personnel for the growing number of professional, scientific and technical jobs that a vibrant, dynamic economy will need‘.