News, Culture & Society

More than 50% of young people in England going to university or college figures show

HALF of pupils now go to university (20 years after Tony Blair made his controversial pledge)

  • Figures for 2017/18 show 50.2 per cent of 17-30-year-olds went to uni or college
  • New 50 per cent record fulfills Tony Blair’s promise under New Labour in 1999 
  • Critics warn it is saturating graduate job market and ‘dumbing down’ degrees 

The proportion of youngsters going to university has surpassed 50 per cent for the first time, official figures show.

The record proportion finally fulfils a target set by Tony Blair in 1999, when he pledged that half of the young adult population should be university-educated.

But the aim has caused controversy ever since, as many critics said it would lead to those with low academic ability undertaking unsuitable courses.

There have also been questions over whether the graduate job market can support so many people, with many ending up in non-professional jobs. 

Figures for 2017/18 show 50.2 per cent of 17-30-year-olds in England went to a UK university or college that year, following a 0.3 percentage point rise from the year before.

Figures for 2017/18 show 50.2 per cent of 17-30-year-olds in England went to a UK university or college that year, following a 0.3 percentage point rise. File image 

Alan Smithers, education professor at the University of Buckingham, said yesterday: ‘It’s good that a lot more young people have the chance to go to university, but the great expansion has led to various strains within the system. 

At the moment not all courses enhance students’ lives and not all lead to good careers.

‘Stop virtue signalling and let poorest in’

Universities must stop ‘virtue signalling’ by claiming to care about poor students and instead just let more in, the Education Secretary has urged.

Gavin Williamson highlighted how universities spend £1billion per year on schemes to help disadvantaged students but in many cases there is little evidence of their effect, while speaking at King’s College London yesterday.

He called for more elite universities to give lower grade offers to poor youngsters who show exceptional talent – as they may have much higher potential than those with a string of A*s. According to the Office for Students, state school pupils living in rich areas of the UK are more than twice as likely as those living in poor areas to go to university.

The minister said: ‘What we have at the moment is that money is being spent but… a lot of universities are not showing the evidence as to the impact…

‘There’s a lot of virtue signalling going on, but I’m not seeing enough results…. I’m not going to be timid in terms of naming and shaming universities that continuously lag behind, and are not willing to make the changes that are required.’

Mr Williamson has written to vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK urging the sector to do more to improve access to higher education.

‘Hopefully that will sort itself out. It is also important, however, that we fully develop practical skills and alternative ways into future lives and employment.’

One of the advantages of the expansion of student numbers is that it has led to a greater number of disadvantaged students attending. In 1999, Mr Blair said: ‘Today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.’ 

A target date was later set for 2010. But in that year, the Association of Graduate Recruiters, which represents 750 employers including blue-chip firms, said the target had driven down standards and devalued degrees.

The proportion of firsts handed out has doubled in the last decade, with 24 per cent of graduates now awarded the top grade, compared with 12 per cent in 2008, according to the latest figures released in May. Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, has pledged for the first time to ‘tackle’ the large increase.

Former education secretary Damian Hinds welcomed the move and warned any university producing an inexplicable rise in top degrees will face intervention from the regulator Office for Students. 

He said artificial grade inflation must be ‘stamped out’ and quality must not be ‘cast aside’ to ‘inflate an institution’s reputation or league table ranking’.

As part of a package of measures, universities have agreed to follow a new framework specifying what a student must demonstrate to achieve a certain grade.

They have promised the criteria will ‘stretch and challenge’ students and ‘protect’ qualifications’ value. 

It comes after UUK admitted for the first time in November tutors may be under pressure from students and bosses to inflate results for fear of bad student feedback and because institutions are motivated to improve their rankings.

Critics have long warned the trend undermines employers’ confidence in the system, as they cannot pinpoint exceptional candidates to hire.


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