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Damned Lies: Student Participation Rates and HE Funding

Well, the previous post inspired some interesting discussion, as did andrewducker's related poll. ahnlak 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
YearStudents21 year olds% of 21 year olds

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:


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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Thanks for getting all this together - very useful.

This [expansion of non-UK students from 8% to 15%] [...]s the main reason that UK universities survived the expansion of the 1980s and 1990s.

It was a very helpful factor but I don't think it's the main reason. The teacher:student ratio has shrunk dramatically over that time too, and my hunch is that this is the main factor - especially if you combine it with the shifts towards the US system of graduate teaching assistants.

Granted - from 9:1 in 1980 to 17:1 in 1999, according to Greenaway and Haynes. I suspect that both are contributory factors.

There are other factors. One that I wasn't aware of was how the *research* postgraduate market in the UK has expanded between 1995 and 2009; I knew that the biggest expansion was in PGTs, but I hadn't realised that full-time PhD numbers had increased tenfold.

PGT Total39400 12900 123,300 67700
PGT FT 14200 6300 90100 60400
PGT PT 25200 6600 33200 7300
PGR Total7600 2600 17700 7700
PGR FT 1400 600 14200 6800
PGR PT 6200 2000 3500 900

So, PGT numbers increased threefold overall (sevenfold for FT PGTs, tenfold for OS FT PGTs), and PGR numbers slightly more than doubled. Full-time PGRS increased tenfold - both UK and OS - while part-time PGRs declined by 50%.

Edited at 2010-07-18 08:27 pm (UTC)

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

What happens if the government redirects funds to the OU? I'm assuming here that putting an 18 year old through the accelerated 3 year OU degree courses is both practical and cheaper than sending them to a conventional university, particularly for hands off subjects which don't attract many foreign students.

I see that other countries have open universities with literally millions of students.

The OU wouldn't be cheaper on that model. Part time students get a (modest) premium in funding on a pro-rata basis - ie part time students are worth more per full-time equivalent (FTE).

It would be more efficient to run existing PT courses as FT. Some of the premium is to account for fixed per-head costs: you have to do a certain amount of admin per student per year, regardless of whether they're doing a FT year's worth of study that year or a twelfth of it, the library has to pay per enrolled student for access to electronic resources, etc.

But you'd be losing the main benefit of PT study which is that most students studying that way not only don't need a semi-subsidised loan for living expenses, but are in employment and actually substantially contributing to the Exchequer through income tax amd NI.

In actuality, the OU (and Birkbeck) were facing a funding cut in 2013 of something of the same order as Departments are being asked to spec out, as a result of the ELQ (Equivalent of Lower Qualification) funding cut. The detail is complex and still under some negotiation, but essentially from then the Govt won't pay for a student to study a degree if they already have an equivalent or higher qualification.A substantial proportion of PT students are like that. Even worse, they tend to be cheap-to-teach students: they tend to do pretty well and not need huge amounts of support, so the financial impact is potentially even larger.

On the other hand, Cameron chose to give an important speech at the OU, and said it had "a huge huge role to play" in dealing with hte current economic woes, so maybe the coalition has sonethig up its sleeve here. But maybe not - Brown gave two speeches at the OU and introduced the funding cut.

(I work for the OU. I should stress this is my personal view, not an official one.)

Millions? Really? Even the University of Phoenix only has 400,000ish students.

Teaching is an odd thing, in that innovation generally only improves the quality of teaching, rather than reduces the cost.

There may be some give by shifting to many more OU style students, but ultimately the only way to reduce costs is to either reduce the number of students or the quality of degrees.

If the govt/dean/suitable authority figure said that most degrees would now be done in 2 years rather than 3 what do imagine the consequences would be for:
a) Teaching staff
b) Students
c) Researchers
d) Employers
e) Uni Admin
f) Conference seasons during traditional old holiday periods

If the majority of students were directed to their local uni (save on accommodation costs) rather around the country what consequences would be for:
a) Teaching staff
b) Students
c) Researchers
d) Employers
e) Uni Admin
f) Conference seasons during traditional old holiday periods

Two year degrees are an incredibly bad idea, but there's a substantial part of the public that believe that, because students aren't at university during the vacations, university staff must be twiddling their thumbs at the taxpayers' expense at those times.

For research-active academics, two year degrees would be disastrous; the vacations are when we get on with our research, attend conferences to disseminate our results, and apply for funding to support our future research. Oh, and take the holidays that we can't take during term-time (I still have over ten days leave that I need to take before 1st October, and that's after I've figured in my main summer holiday).

For researchers (not academics), there's less of an issue; they mostly don't have much contact with the undergraduates.

I could see the university employers being forced into employing part-time teaching fellows over the summer to try and free up academics. This could have a negative effect on the quality of teaching that the students receive.

There's a *huge* issue regarding the recognition of two year degrees. At present, our degrees are grudgingly recognised at Bologna-compliant by the rest of Europe, where bachelors degrees are typically four year affairs, and we do some creative counting when it comes to calculating student effort. Under Bologna, a bachelors degree is between 180 and 240 ECTS credits. One ECTS credit is supposed to correspond to 25-30 hours of work by the students (including contact hours), but in Southampton we're assuming a lower figure of 20 hours. Move to two year degrees, and this becomes even more problematic.

On the other hand, you could probably call a two year degree a diploma or possibly an ordinary degree.

On the university accommodation side, year-round students means that you couldn't get in the more lucrative conference trade (unless you build dedicated facilities, as have Warwick). We already have a lot of year-round students as it is (we call them MSc students), but filling halls to capacity with undergrads would mean that we couldn't do the residential outreach courses for sixth formers that we do now. So, overall negative.

I think it's pretty lazy to disregard any argument for a reduction in the proportion of people entering HE as the "certain right-of-centre on-line forums" - we simply don't require anything close to 35% of the workforce to be graduate level; while it's certainly desireable to have a slight excess of graduate level people, if funds are not infinite then it's just daft to waste them on over-training.

And the thing is, funds aren't infinite. We're spectacularly broke, and the trouble with refusing to consider cuts because a given area is "important" is just an argument for doing nothing, because every area thinks it's important. If we had billions of surplus then sure, it would be a worthy exercise to university-educate everyone who was interested and capable.

So I guess the real question is this - given the financial situation, what do you consider to be a reasonable and realistic HEIPR to aim for? And which other public services are you willing to slash disproportionately to pay for it?

Slightly intrigued why (you think) we don't need graduates

Is this going to be like us not needing people who can type in the 1970s? "Not everybody's going to be a secretary dear, you won't need that skill".

So far the trend for our society (and not just "in Britain") is toward not just mechanisation but automation. Supposing we believe the anthropologists* that a nomad hunter/gatherer society is a highly skilled population then we're the far side of the curve. We're past the point where innovations eliminate mostly unskilled labour, and onto eliminating semi-skilled and skilled jobs.

On the early railways you'd have five men on a train of just a few hundred passengers, plus a signalman every few miles. Today it's two men on the train, up to about 1000 passengers, plus one guy sat at a desk controlling signals for hundreds of miles. But, Siemens has some jobs for graduate electronics engineers to design the next generation Eurobalise compatible ATP system.

* My dysnomia is getting worse, it took two Google searches to find that word, even though I used it conversationally yesterday.

I think it's pretty lazy to disregard any argument for a reduction in the proportion of people entering HE as the "certain right-of-centre on-line forums"

Possibly, but no more lazy than the people on (eg.) the Daily Mail forums who are complaining about the growth of 'meeja studies' degrees and student numbers under 'New Lie-bore', when under New Labour the proportion enrolling in HE has stayed roughly constant.

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.

Many ministers went to Oxbridge and they therefore have very little idea about how the majority of universities operate.

The sector can make savings, but only by cutting entire departments or whole institutions, not by making lots of further 'efficiency savings' as these have already been made.


Hi! I came to this post via matgb, and would like to keep track of whatever else you might post in future about HE funding, since it's an issue which is deeply affecting me at the moment (I work for a Classics department which is currently under threat of closure because of the squeezes to HEFCE funding). So I am about to friend you, and thought I should introduce myself and explain why.

Anyway, many thanks for putting in the work on this and sharing it here. The conclusions are not exactly cheering, of course, but better to know what's really going on than not. Along similar lines, I have heard from people who work in University admin that student numbers are projected to fall from about 2016, all other things being equal, because there will be a fall in the proportion of the population at the appropriate age. This doesn't seem to be anything that policy-makers are planning for or taking into account - but it will have quite a profound effect on departments like mine (if it still exists by then, of course) which are heavily dependent on teaching income.

Glad you found the post useful (if depressing). I suspect that I'll post more on this subject when the next comprehensive spending review comes around.

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