Half of young adults are now predicted to go to university – fulfilling Tony Blair’s pledge, official statistics show.
Some 49.8 per cent of people are now projected to enter higher education before they are 30, the highest figure on record, despite rises in tuition fees.
But experts warned yesterday that the long-standing drive has led to an emphasis on ‘quantity above quality’.
Tuition charges are currently £9,250 a year. And students in England are predicted to graduate with average debts of £50,800 amid ‘very high’ interest rates on loans, according to estimates from the Institute for Fiscal Studies last year.
Some 49.8 per cent of people are now projected to enter higher education
Yesterday, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Studies at Buckingham University, said: ‘Many graduates at present aren’t getting graduate level jobs and will find it hard to achieve a salary that will enable them to pay off the large amount of loan they have taken out to cover their courses.’
He added: ‘Half of young people now go to university so Tony Blair’s target for quantity has been met, but what about the quality of courses and institutions?
‘Another downside is that it’s downgraded the importance of vocational education, which the Government is now urgently trying to rectify.’
Mr Blair told the 1999 Labour party conference, when he was prime minister, that 50 per cent of young people should take part in higher education, although his deadline of 2010 was not met.
In 2006/07, 41.7 per cent of young people were likely to have gone to university and the percentage has been steadily rising almost every year. The lifting of student number controls in England in 2015 gave universities free rein to recruit as many undergraduates as they saw fit.
The Government’s Higher Education Initial Participation Rate is an estimate of the likelihood of a young person studying for a sub-degree, first degree or a postgraduate course by the age of 30, based on current participation rates. By this measure, participation rose by 0.7 percentage points from 49.1 per cent in 2015/16 to 49.8 per cent in 2016/17.
The Department for Education dataset – which rounds up the proportion to 50 per cent – says this equates to 333,490 students, up from 332,000.
Those entering higher education immediately after school also reached a record high last year, with 28 per cent of 18-year-olds in study. This is the fourth year in a row this measure has increased.
Students in England are predicted to graduate with average debts of £50,800
Last week, Education Secretary Damian Hinds toured Germany and Holland to learn more about their vocational education systems. He attacked ‘snobbery’ and ‘outdated attitudes’ towards vocational qualifications, insisting children at every type of school must be aware of the ‘range of possibilities’, including degree apprenticeships.
He stressed that for many young people ‘the right choice will be to go to university – but for some it might not be’.
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said: ‘These figures highlight that young people up and down the country clearly recognise the value of studying at one of our world-class universities, and we want that to continue.
‘We recognise there is more to do to level the playing field and ensure more people with the talent and potential get a fair crack of the whip wherever they live.’
The Government is carrying out a review of post-18 education and funding ‘to ensure that the system provides genuine choice and opportunity for everyone’.