UK urged to set 70 per cent higher education participation target

The UK should set a target for 70 per cent of young people to enter higher education, according to an influential higher education policy expert.

Nick Hillman’s proposal in A New Blue Book is likely to prove controversial with a sizeable chunk of the Conservative Party, whose policies the publication aims to influence.

Mr Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute – although his book chapter is written in a personal capacity – as well as being a former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as a Conservative universities minister, and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate in Cambridge.

“In the context of Brexit, which may mean a reduction in the supply of highly-skilled migrants, and rising life expectancy…we should be planning ahead to increase the time spent in education,” Mr Hillman writes.

“A target of around 70 per cent participation by 2035 should not be unachievable. That may sound ambitious, but it is a comparable trajectory to in the past and, as South Korea, Russia and Canada have all achieved participation way ahead of ours, it can surely be done.”

Figures released by the Department for Education on 28 September showed the provisional Higher Education Initial Participation Rate for 2015-16 was at 49 per cent, an increase of 1.4 percentage points on the previous year. The HEIPR covers 17- to 30-year-old English participants at UK higher and further education institutions. However, the statistical release suggested that enrolment at alternative providers may add 1.5 percentage points to the figure – pushing it over the 50 per cent target set by the Labour government in 1999.

Asked by Times Higher Education why further expansion was needed, Mr Hillman said that the “needs of the economy are likely to mean a need for more high-level skills”.

He noted that many professions where a degree was previously not required have evolved to become graduate professions as the nature of work changed, including teaching, nursing and policing.

In his essay, Mr Hillman notes that when former prime minister Tony Blair set the 50 per cent participation target, “Conservatives spluttered into their coffee, opposed the target and then promised, at the 2005 general election, to send fewer people to university as a way of funding the abolition of tuition fees”.

Although the mainstream of the Conservative Party has largely swung behind expansion since then, some voices in the party remain opposed.

Mr Hillman told THE that while there were critics of expansion across the political spectrum, “it does sometimes seem a particularly difficult issue for people on the right”. He suggested this may be because “at its worst, right-wing politics can sink into a ‘them and us’ attitude” in which higher education was deemed as being the territory of the middle classes, while some Tory MPs represented constituencies with high participation rates and hence saw little merit in expansion.

But Mr Hillman said that “if we’re going to help those other parts of the country”, that would either mean fewer places for richer students “or more places overall”.

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