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Is there really a record number of disadvantaged students in HE?

Is it accurate for Johnson to keep repeating that there are record number of disadvantaged students in HE? Mark Leach reviews the latest evidence.
This article is more than 6 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Jo Johnson keeps telling the House of Commons and repeating in speeches and articles – including during my on-stage interview with him at Wonkfest – that the participation of disadvantaged students in higher education is at record highs. But is that really true?

In a recent debate on higher education funding (11 October) Johnson told the House of Commons that:

“I find it alarming that Gordon Marsden [the Shadow Minister] is chuntering away saying “It’s not true”. It is true. The proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds now going to university has increased. It is undeniably true. It is in the statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Office for Fair Access. The number is 43 per cent higher than it was in 2009/10.”

However, in a little-noticed and curiously dense response to a parliamentary question slipped out by the Department of Education last week (14 November), the Minister published some new statistics on the participation of disadvantaged students:

In 2011/12, 41,405 full-time English-domiciled undergraduate students from low participation areas (defined as being in the lowest quintile of the POLAR3 classification) entered English higher education institutions. The equivalent figure for 2015/16 was 44,285, representing a 7% increase in full-time undergraduate entrants from low participation areas between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

In 2011/12, 30,485 part-time English-domiciled undergraduate students from low participation areas entered English higher education institutions. The equivalent figure for 2015/16 was 16,330, representing a 47% decrease in part-time undergraduate entrants from low participation areas between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

It’s all very confusing. Why did the minister not add up the numbers, to get the total change over time in participation of disadvantaged students in higher education, so he could demonstrate the record-breaking performance on social mobility?

The next part of the response could have continued:

In 2011/12, 71,890 English-domiciled undergraduate students from low participation areas entered English higher education institutions. The equivalent figure for 2015/16 was 60,615, representing a 16% decrease in undergraduate entrants from low participation areas between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

Oh. I see.

What is a “young person”?

So it turns out that there is not a record participation of disadvantaged students in higher education after all, thanks to the collapse in part-time higher education. But – as the minister noted in his PQ response – the participation of “young people” from the most disadvantaged areas has gone up since 2011/12.

But even this is more complicated than it looks. The first question that arises is “what is a young person?”.

Going back to the technical details of the statistics quoted by the minister, it turns out that the UCAS data he cites refers to the participation rates of 18-year-olds. HESA statistics define anyone aged 21 or over as not “young”. For comparison, the median age of someone starting an apprenticeship – who the UK government do consider to be young – is 24.

So perhaps to avoid misinterpretation – as I am sure the minister is keen to do – he may be more accurate saying “there are a record number of teenagers from disadvantaged areas entering university” or “there has been an increase in the numbers of full-time students from disadvantaged areas entering university”.

For the health of policymaking, it seems so very important to be clear and honest about what’s really going on.

Why has part-time higher education in England declined?

Does it matter that there has been a decline in part-time higher education, or that there are fewer people aged 21 and over entering higher education than there were before 2012? Understanding why there has been a fall will help: is it because of the funding reforms in 2012 or something else?

Here’s Jo Johnson again in a House of Commons debate over the summer (11 July):

“I acknowledge the fall, but he needs to understand that there are complex reasons for it, including the rapid increase in the proportion of people entering higher education at the young age of 18. This means that there is a smaller stock of students seeking to participate in part-time and mature study later in life. We also have one of the most buoyant labour markets of any economy anywhere in the world, which increases the opportunity-cost of study for people later on in life, at a time when they would otherwise be earning significant sums of money”

The Chief Executive of HEFCE, Madeleine Atkins, is also uncertain about the cause of the collapse in part-time higher education, saying in a recent appearance before the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee that “we do not have the hard data, and the hard analysis behind it, to be 100% sure that that is the dominant factor”.

Does this stack up? Is the decline in part-time largely explained by external factors such as a shrinking pool of potential students or a buoyant labour market, rather than the funding changes in England in 2012?

The economic consultancy (and recent winners of the Wonkhe Award for Most important contribution to HE policy research), London Economics, has done a detailed study looking at whether the two drivers highlighted by the minister can explain the drop. London Economics says that the “demand for part-time higher education will increase in a buoyant labour market” and that “the decline in part-time study is more than 4½ times as large as the increase in full-time study”.

The fact that the funding regime changed in England but not elsewhere in the UK provides a good natural experiment looking at the impact of these changes: there is little reason to think that the other drivers that have been highlighted will apply particularly strongly in England but not in other nations of the UK.

The Open University’s latest report on part-time study (see below) has a rather stark chart to demonstrate this:

There’s pretty compelling evidence that something unique to England happened in 2012/13, that caused a very big and permanent decrease in enrolment in part-time higher education.

It’s not difficult to see what that might be.

What can and should be done about the decline?

Last week, the Open University published a pamphlet which argued that the market for part-time higher education is broken. It draws on both the wonky economic arguments about market failure as well as the fact that the architect of the 2012 reforms, David Willetts, has come to the same conclusion himself. At Wonkfest, Willetts described the collapse of part-time as “one of my biggest regrets about my time as minister”.

The OU report notes that the assumption made by policymakers – including Lord Browne of Madingley (of Browne Review fame) – that extending tuition fee loans to part-time students would more than outweigh the negative impact on demand of increasing tuition fees, drawing on the lessons of earlier reforms affecting full-time students, was catastrophically wrong. Admittedly, there was no evidence at the time for policy-makers or even providers to assess this. It concludes that part-time higher education needs to be treated differently to full-time higher education to reverse the accidental collapse.

To be fair to Jo Johnson, he has previously expressed concern about the collapse in part-time higher education. In 2015, it was announced that the government would extend maintenance loans to part-time students from 2018/19 and may extend them to part-time distance learning students from 2019/20. Under Willetts, rules over Equivalent or Lower Qualifications (ELQs) were also relaxed.

However, the OU pamphlet argues that while these are the right reforms to make, they will not be enough to transform part-time higher education and support the government’s industrial strategy.

The key barrier is the very high cost of study facing students – and employers – who want to learn while they earn. Addressing this and cutting the cost of study – perhaps through a return to the part-time premium, “learn and earn” vouchers for students, and increasing the flexibility around how the apprenticeship levy can be used – is considered essential to reviving the sector, and must all be on the table for the Prime Minister’s higher education “major review” (if it ever materialises). The review should also look at what the Diamond Review has done (or is doing) in Wales, as well as international examples such as Belgium.

The OU is not the only voice highlighting concern about part-time higher education. Indeed, something resembling a consensus is starting to emerge. As well as David Willetts, Nick Hillman and others in the sector including UUK, GuildHE, University Alliance, MillionPlus (and providers such as London South Bank University and Birkbeck), there’s also now backing for the idea that something needs to be done from business groups, such as the CBI and the IoD.

Is now the time to look at what some perceive to be the real casualty of the 2012 reforms? Is there an appetite to assess the real evidence, speak to the truth and address the market failure? Time will tell but the clock is ticking for part-time higher education.

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