‘As a nation, we are wasting too much of the talent of too many of the people.  I want to achieve a university participation rate of over 50% among the under 30s’ – Prime Minister Tony Blair, February 2001

‘It is one of this country’s great achievements massively to have expanded higher education.  But we seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates which don’t get them the jobs that they want’ – Prime Minister Boris Johnson, September 2020




Why increase higher education participation?

Some consistent themes run through the case for interventions by national and local governments to support the expansion of higher education in England, which has extended from the investment in civic universities in the late 19th early 20th centuries to the encouragement of new providers through the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act.

Firstly, a democratic desire to improve opportunities for and meet increasing demand from young people and their families, as well as adults wanting to re-enter learning alongside work and household responsibilities.  Secondly, an instrumental goal to invest in the broad knowledge and specific skills developed through higher education to meet anticipated demand from employers, and thereby enhance social and economic prosperity.  Thirdly, a civic faith in the ability of universities and colleges to raise ambitions and shape pathways through lives and careers, to attract and retain people and investment, and to develop and contribute to unifying local and national cultures through all aspects of their missions.

All of these elements can be found in the early 21st century vision for expanding English higher education typified by the then Prime Minister’s statement above.  In advanced societies and economies, it was argued, what you know, demonstrated by your educational credentials, would be more important than who you know and where you start from.  By increasing higher education participation and taking it to new places, governments could equalise opportunities.  This would both unlock potential by raising and rewarding the attainment and ambitions of young people and adults, and it would enhance human capital, which would shape and meet the needs of increasingly knowledge and technology-oriented businesses and public services.

This vision was broadly sustained by governments of all parties until 2019, albeit with increasing reliance on regulated competition rather than government grant to achieve it.  Universities and colleges would be engines of social mobility and productivity, but they would need to become more accessible to under-represented people and places, including by diversifying the cost, mode and location of delivery to meet the needs of a wider cohort of students.  This would include a higher proportion of courses enabling people to study part-time, at intermediate levels and whilst in work.

The intention was to enable learners to choose between different modes and combinations of academic, professional, technical and creative education, at different times of life, and through different types of higher education provider.  Given the right information, their choices would themselves meet the needs of employers in open and changing labour markets, which would reward graduates who could demonstrate their flexibility and adaptability to the needs of knowledge and technology-oriented businesses and public services.


What has happened in the 21st century

Higher education has expanded beyond the 50% young participation target set in 2001, with many benefits to students, universities and the places in which they are based.  This has not, though, delivered the improvements to equality of opportunity, diversity and reach of provision, productivity and ultimately prosperity that had been promised.

Expansion during the 21st century has been accompanied by stratification, giving more weight to the influence of school attainment, which still tracks social background in England.  Alongside this, opportunities to counter the effect of social background and school attainment by entering higher education later in life have diminished.  Universities have pursued a secure and growing flow of young full-time full-degree students to their campuses, which align with student services and international recruitment more than local employers.  They have also expanded low-cost full degree provision more than the STEM and intermediate technical courses employers say they particularly value, due to the lower cost of entry and higher returns in these areas.  The diversity of routes through higher education has also been affected by increasing competition, making collaboration and progression between universities and further education colleges harder than before.

Some employers have adopted new approaches and technologies that rely on higher level knowledge and skills, but they have also used higher education as a filtering device within their recruitment, sustaining an earnings premium for graduates ahead of other employees.  This creates a gap in prosperity and wellbeing between graduates – particularly those from the most selective universities who travel to study and work in London, the south-east and the major cities – and others living and working in post-industrial and coastal towns as well as rural areas across the country.

These factors influence the current government’s position set out by the Prime Minister at the start of this article, as of course does the upfront cost of each higher education student, which has increased since the ONS changed the position on reporting student finance within the public accounts.


Alternative futures

These two narratives are deliberately provocative, but they help to frame the scale of the ambition that has driven higher education expansion across England for more than a century and the imperative to create a new settlement for future generations.

There are two different paths we could follow now, which involve discouraging activity the government wants to happen less or stimulating activity it wants to happen more.  The first would aim to reduce higher education participation, for example through a cap on eligibility for student finance based on school grades.  The second would enable continued expansion of higher education participation by improving demand for different routes, for example by implementing the proposed lifelong learning entitlement and other measures advocated by the Augar review, which include strengthening of further education colleges and enhancing their coherence with universities through re-balancing of the private and public imperatives within higher education.

The lesson from more than a century of higher education expansion in England is that the positive approach, enabling students, families and employers to make their own choices about learning pathways, is the only realistic one.  Capping educational opportunity, and indeed the knowledge and skills needed for local and national prosperity, would not be a sustainable policy for any government, let alone one that is committed to ‘levelling up’.


Chris Millward is Professor of Practice in Education Policy at the University of Birmingham

Photo by Mathew Buchanan

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