This article is more than 5 years old

The participation game

David Kernohan and Louis Coiffait rummage through the latest higher education participation data, charting a game of snakes and ladders.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Louis was an Associate Editor at Wonkhe.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published provisional statistics on participation rates in higher education in England for the ten years to 2017.

Other collections will cover Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If you’re not into PDFs of cherry-picked data and accompanying Excel tables, here are some interactive charts for you to play with, with a side order of enlightening/withering commentary.

The higher education initial participation rate (HEIPR) shows how likely somebody is to participate by the age of 30, and includes all levels of study (sub-degree, first degree or postgraduate) as well as those not applying via UCAS. This comprehensive (if slightly laggy) data is what underpinned Tony Blair’s (in)famous target of 50% participation, which – with a 0.7% increase in the last year – was finally reached in 2016-17 (though only by rounding up 0.2%).

Eighteen year olds continue to be the most likely to participate, up by 0.9% to 28% this year, the highest ever.

And data confirms that two regions – the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber – jointly share the lowest rates (40%), while London is far ahead with a participation rate of 63%, and the East of England coming second with 50%.

Modes and genders

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The chart above illustrates just how stark the drop in 2012-13 was, with initial full-time entrants only reaching 2011-12 levels (297,315 or 43,3%) again in 2015-16. Worryingly, the rate of recovery is slowing down, with only 2,555 (0.8%) more entrants in 2016-17 than in the previous year.

The picture is even bleaker for initial part-time entrants, with the unforced policy errors of 2012-13 decimating part-time study (down from 40,435 in 2011-12, to 26,730 in 2016-17). That’s a drop of a third and there are no signs of recovery, just a free fall and lots of hand-wringing. Let’s see what the post-18 review can muster in response.

Overall participation reached 333,490 (49.8%) in 2016-17, something DfE is keen to spin as good news. However, once all modes of study and genders are included in the figures, in reality, this is actually 4,265 entrants lower than in 2011-12. But, of course, you won’t hear ministers quoting that particular figure.

Furthermore, the gender gap continues to widen, with women now 12.4% more likely to go into HE than men (it was 11.5% last year). In 2016-17, 183,195 (56.1%) of women entered higher education, that’s 33,000 more than men (43.7%).

Year-on-year comparisons

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This chart is for those true wonks who want to compare two years and adjust for age when looking at entrant numbers, participation rate, and population.

Older data

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With changes to the methodology in 2006-07, participation rates can’t be compared between the period 1999-2000 to 2006-07 and 2006-07 to 2016-17, but the data for the earlier period is available. The chart above details that older data, illustrating the slow increases – particularly for women – up to a peak of 281,000 (43.1%) in 2005, then the sudden drop-off for everybody in 2006-07 down to 270,00 (40.4%) – when the data method was changed.

One response to “The participation game

  1. Careful, 2011-12 is not the correct benchmark as potential students who usually would have taken a gap year brought their applications forward leading to a spike in applications in that year. One should use 2010-11 perhaps with some allowance for trend growth. On that basis applications had recovered by 2013-14 and one could easily smooth the 2011-13 blip.

    Part-time study is a different matter.

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