Damned Lies: Student Participation Rates and HE Funding

Well, the previous post inspired some interesting discussion, as did ‘s related poll. asked for the source of some of the figures that I’d quoted, and this got me looking. I’d wanted to be able to give some more detailed figures initially, but was surprised (given the current funding debate) that they weren’t that easy to find.

Using the data on the number of graduating students from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and population demographic data from Office of National Statistics, I put together the following table:

Graduating UK domiciled FT students (first degree) by year
Year Students 21 year olds % of 21 year olds
1994/1995 194,275 733,300 26.4%
1995/1996 205,805 708,100 28.9%
1996/1997 206,081 685,000 30.1%
1997/1998 206,389 659,700 31.3%
1998/1999 210,176 669,200 31.4%
1999/2000 212,340 711,800 29.8%
2000/2001 215,425 745,300 28.9%
2001/2002 216,230 749,400 28.8%
2002/2003 220,905 727,400 30.2%
2003/2004 229,250 749,800 30.6%
2004/2005 237,735 787,100 30.1%
2005/2006 241,100 826,800 29.2%
2006/2007 244,195 830,100 29.4%
2007/2008 256,830 836,100 30.6%
2008/2009 253,720 855,600 29.6%

Sources: HESA qualifications obtained, ONS population pyramid

There are several assumptions in these figures:

  • I only consider full-time students graduating from their first degree. This is what people typically think of when they think of university students, and full-time students greatly outnumber part-time.
  • HESA don’t publish enrolment figures, only graduation, so this underestimates participation by assuming that no students drop out. That said, the drop out rate should be largely constant.
  • In order to map graduate numbers onto the total population, I’ve assumed that students all enrol at age 18 and graduate at age 21. Given that the UK population is growing, that bachelors degrees are a minimum of three years, and that the majority of students enrol at age 18 or older, this systematically underestimates participation.

There are some interesting observations that we can make from this data (and the supporting data in the sources above):

  • The number of UK part-time students is typically less than 12% of the total number of UK students each year, and the proportion remains roughly constant.
  • Over the period from 1994/1995 to 2008/2009, the proportion of full-time overseas and EU students (compared to the total number of full-time students) studying for a first degree increased from 8% to 15%. This is a direct consequence of the reduction in per capita funding for UK students (see below), and is the main reason that UK universities survived the expansion of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • The number of full-time UK students graduating with a first degree from a UK university increased by roughly 25% between 1997 and 2008. However, the proportion of graduating 21 year olds has stayed roughly constant at 30+/-1%

Of course, after I’d put together these figures, I then found that BIS (as DIUS) had published the data I’d wanted in a report (DIUS SFR02/2009) on a corner of the DCSF website. Not where I would have looked, and probably not where the report will be after the new lot finish obliterating all traces of the old lot. If you want to take a copy of the report (here) do it now before it disappears.

This report estimates participation differently; it takes enrolment rather than graduation (the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate), and does not make the simplifying assumptions about the ages of students that I do. Consequently, my figures systematically overestimate the population who could become students, and underestimate the population who are students (in part because I only look at FT students).

On the other hand, my intuitions about retention and drop-out are broadly correct; the drop-out rate remains static at roughly 8+/-1% over the period 1999/2000-2006/2007.

The report gives FT HEIPRs that vary as follows:

1999/2000 34%
2000/2001 34%
2001/2002 35%
2002/2003 36%
2003/2004 35%
2004/2005 34%
2005/2006 37%
2006/2007 34%

Not a great deal of variation, I think you’ll agree. The HEIPR for FT/PT combined – which is what New Labour wanted to rise to 50% – stayed in the 39-42% region in the same period. Hardly the increase that we’re being lead to believe by our new masters, or that is being raised as a justification for cuts on certain right-of-centre on-line forums. The big increase in student numbers happened between 1980 and 1997, not under New Labour (various sources, including Gombrich and Greenaway and Haynes [mirror] – and you can just see the tail end of this expansion in the first table above).

The current debate on HE funding and the nigh-inevitability of cuts assumes that there are gross savings to be had. The problem with this is that the big expansion in the 1980s and 1990s was largely unfunded; student numbers went up and total funding stayed the same, or to put it a different way, per capita student funding went down. This post-1980 expansion was bankrolled by the increase in overseas students noted above. Greenaway and Haynes (p. F152) give a drop of 50% in real terms per capita funding during 1980-1999, while this briefing by Universities UK to the House of Lords (para 4 in the PDF) tells a similar story for 1989-2010, but then goes on to note that i) our spending on HE as a percentage of GDP is less than the OECD average (1.3% compared to an average of 1.5%) and ii) more than £1 billion had already (as of February 2010) been cut from spending on HE committed in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. The new government added an extra £200 million to that, and now we’re being told to prepare for cuts of up to 25%.

If UK HE survives this, whatever is left will be unrecognisable.

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