A new approach to Blair’s target

No more HEIP, but a whole bag of CHEPs

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Tony Blair told the Labour conference in 1999 “today, I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century”.

At the time, it was seen as aspirational and fairly uncontroversial (though the sector, of course, was focused on funding).

The expansion of higher education since then – just 38.8 per cent of those who were 15 in 2001-02 attended higher education before the age of 25, compared with 48.6 per cent of the most recent cohort (who were 15 in 2011-12) – can perhaps be seen as a legacy of this aspiration. However, the existence of the Department for Education participation measure certainly is a more direct legacy.

The 50 per cent target has been scrapped several times since it was first announced, and one very much gets the sense that our current government would be happier if the direction of travel was reversed. Certainly, the projection of a 2021-22 fall in those aged 17-30 to have entered some form of higher education suggests a shift in that direction, though DfE suggest this is just a return to the underlying trend after two pandemic boom years for enrolment.

Because of the nature of the measure (we can’t know what 25 year olds have done before they actually get to 25) some of the most recent findings are based on cohorts who turned 15 in 2011-12. From there we see that it is full time first degrees that have driven the expansion – the influence of foundation degrees has shrunk over time, though both they and certificates/diplomas have played a small role.

Regionally, London sits comfortably above the rest of England on the “by 25” measure, with the south west and east midlands bringing up the rear. And equally surprisingly, the gap between male and female participation actually grew as both rates increased over time.

The so-called Cohort-based Higher Education Participation (CHEP) methodology that underpins this data replaces the Higher Education Initial Participation (HEIP) approach this year. The emphasis on cohorts is key – previously we just added age-specific entry levels like cavemen would have – doing it this way gives us reliable region and demographic figures, plus a more accurate overall value (as a datapoint rather than a projection).

2 responses to “A new approach to Blair’s target

  1. It’s really bizarre that Blair and Labour get all the “credit” for achieving the 50 per cent participation target – which still hasn’t been achieved – when they barely increased HE participation (participation by age 19 increased from 30% when Blair set his target to 33% when Labour left office) due to maintaining a tight numbers cap until the 2008 recession. There is a good argument that their school and post-16 reforms have been a key underlying driver of post-2010 demand but that’s really all they can claim credit for.

    Poor George Osborne denied acclaim for one of the main achievements of his time in office – him removing numbers caps has transformed access to higher education for people from working-class backgrounds including at elite universities.

  2. Perhaps the 50% will be achieved, if Universities weren’t so focused on ‘overseas’ students and the extra money that comes in with them? Many Universities lack the capacity to achieve it as so many of them are brought here.

    The growing gap in male and female participation is unsurprising, education in primary, and latterly secondary is biased towards the female, both in learning ‘style’ and number of female teachers, so more achieve the requisite grades to attend uni. The on-campus bias towards female staff and students is becoming more obvious too, perhaps putting off potential male students?

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