50% Participation in HE: Realistic or just a Dream?

Rather than just plucking targets from the air, the UK deserves a systematic analysis of the expansion of Higher Education. Dick Evans explains why.

The present government has set a target of a 50% participation in Higher Education, by the year 2010 for people under the age of 30. Obviously it’s an important and worthy aspiration but is it realistic or possible?

As Barry Sheerman (Chair of the Commons Education Committee) stated,

“If it is a figure plucked from the air it could seriously distort the higher education system. The priority now is immediate action to raise pay in universities and ensure high levels of funding for research”.

Many commentators feel the target has been plucked out of the air and the government has not thought through the consequences of the expansion in student numbers on the existing HE system both in universities and colleges.


Currently the majority of universities are operating deficits across their academic departments and many are only breaking even from other income generating activities /sources. As the recent articles on skills shortages (1) highlighted many departments are failing to realise student number targets in strategic disciplines such as engineering, science and modern languages. Many departments have already been closed or merged with other departments. Colleges struggle particularly to hit their student targets for HNDs/Cs and the other vocational awards. Another interesting and in many ways an understandable view has been expressed by John Gains (Chief Executive of John Mowlem and Company pic) namely :

“ Too many young people are being encouraged to go to university and follow academic courses which neither suit them nor equip them with the skills to enjoy successful and productive careers. They need high quality careers guidance which does not place too much emphasis on the need to obtain a degree”.

Many graduates are either under employed or unemployed – the “Mac job syndrome” – and his comments raise serious questions about the reliability and validity of careers education and guidance in schools and colleges. This development I fear will continue coupled with greater debts.


One of the problems with mass HE is that it raises student expectations and employers often are concerned about their commitment, motivation and understanding of the work place. Many employers argue strongly that it takes many graduates time to “tune in” to the culture of work and the workplace.

The demise of the apprenticeship and the consequent ability to “grow their own timber” has contributed to this problem. Previously companies took on 16 and 18 year olds into the company and provided opportunities for sandwich, block, day release for further and/or higher education and training produced a greater employer confidence in their employees. Hopefully the new modern apprenticeships and the developing graduate apprenticeship frameworks will begin to increase the stock and flow of a more confident, qualified and competent workforce particularly in such areas as engineering, manufacture, science and other key strategic areas that require highly qualified technicians and craftspeople.

Modern industrial and commercial processes require balanced teams of people each possessing different profiles of understanding, knowledge, skills and competences.


The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has said:

“ The Government’s target is for 50% participation with no drop in standards. It would be self-defeating to expand HE by reducing standards, because that would devalue the currency of the qualifications, which young people are seeking as a key step in achieving their career ambitions. But that does not mean that the range and nature of HE programmes on offer does not need to change”.

The final point made by HEFCE is critical if expansion is to take place; then the nature and purpose of higher education has to be fundamentally reviewed and redefined. It cannot just be about traditional degree programmes of study located and validated by the university sector. Other providers must contribute to the delivery to the expanded HE system e.g. colleges and workplace centres. Colleges already deliver around 10% of all HE provision in the country, the majority of which involve non-degree awards such as higher National Diplomas/Certificates, Professional awards and NVQs levels 4/5. The new definition of HE must include a range of awards that match the requirements and needs of future learners and employers. The landscape of awards must recognise the importance of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and the changing nature of work and the reality of multiple careers in people’s working lives.

The needs of people who wish to under take study for its own sake must also be recognised and catered for by a wide variety of study and attendance modes. A rich and diverse system needs to be developed and properly resourced if expansion is to be realised and match the demands of the twenty first century.


One concerning factor in the government’s proposals is the single focus on the younger learner; the real harvest is the older learner. An expanded and more diverse HE system must be able to more easily facilitate entry and be more attractive to the older learners who might have missed out earlier opportunities for study.

It would be essential to include older learners if the proposed target is to be more realistic and achievable – after all if lifelong learning means anything it must be truly inclusive. HEFCE in its statement Partnership for Progression (2) set out an agenda:

  • More graduates are needed to enable the UK to sustain and develop a knowledge economy able to compete globally.
  • Fair access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to all forms of education, is an essential part of addressing social exclusion.

If expansion occurs the issues associated with the learners’ personal and financial circumstances must be recognised and addressed especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. At present students involved with HE are struggling to cope with increasing debt and are not convinced that a first degree guarantees a long and financially secure future.

This reality must be recognised otherwise HE will become again the domain for the rich and privileged.

The review of the future nature of HE must recognise the programmes of study that are currently referred to as sub-degree e.g. HNDs/Cs, Foundation Degrees and NVQs-level 4 level. The veiy term sub’ relegates the awards to a second-class award – a classic example of the elitism that still persists in this country. These awards are important and possess a value and integrity in their own right. Employers have always valued HNDs/Cs and have voiced concerns about academic drift in awards and qualifications.

The degree is seen particularly by politicians as the gold standard just as they do GCE A levels at level 3 whilst despite all the rhetoric vocational awards are still seen as being second class. If this country is to tackle skill gaps and shortages it must develop a culture that truly values vocational qualifications and a long term, comprehensive and consistent approach must be adopted to realise the often-stated intention to create parity of esteem.

‘Sub’ degrees.

The current prototypes for Foundation Degrees(FDs) might provide a possible way forward but the very title highlights the historical issues of hierarchy and will be seen as a second league qualification.

Foundation degrees (FDs) are the equivalent of NVQ level 4, are as a result one level below honours degree and are also unfortunately referred to as a sub-degree. As a result they are equivalent to the existing HND/HNC which many commentators see will be threatened by the foundation degree when it is rolled out from 2003. HEFCE in March 2001 commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to manage a support team for the foundation degree initiative. The latest information on FDs is available on the team’s web-site: foundationdegree.pwcglobal.com.

A previous article in t-magazine (3) provided more information on the foundation degree and the evolving framework for the graduate apprenticeship.


Another existing development in enhancing the current Higher Education qualifications’ profile is being developed by City and Guilds namely the Higher Professional Diplomas. These awards are structured as follows:

  • 12 units.
  • Can be individually certificated.
  • Each unit-40 delivered hours, 100 notional hours.
  • Total notional hours-1,200.
  • 1,200 notional hours=120 credits=lst year of a honours degree.

The awards are vocationally orientated and comprise the following programmes;

Community Justice, Construction, Counselling, Creative Arts, Engineering, Further and Adult Education Teaching, Hospitality and Catering, Information Management using IT, IT Practitioner, Land-Based Management, Photo Imaging, Retail Management, Salon Management, Sport and Recreation Management and Travel and Tourism. A number of these are still awaiting approval but represent a significant development in the HE awards landscape.

The City and Guilds (CGLI) are also developing a number of Master Professional Practitioner Awards which will be equivalent to 2/3rds of a Master’s degree in such areas as: Construction, Hospitality and Catering Management, Learning and Development, Sport and Recreation Management and Strategy and Development. Such developments will contribute to the depth of HE awards that will be necessary to realise the proposed expansion and more adequately match learner and employer expectations in the future.

In summary

In order to achieve the government’s expansion agenda mature learners must be included in the growth target and a diverse range of awards must be maintained and further enhanced. Finally the following issues must be recognised and addressed if the widening participation agenda is also to be realised:

  • Funding and support for both institutions and the learners.
  • Clear and consistent definitions of terminology and levels developed.
  • Parity of esteem for vocational awards established and the academic vocational divide and constant debates consigned to history once and for all.
  • Significant reform of learning style approaches undertaken as a matter of urgency.
  • Issues about accessibility addressed by creating a variety of study and attendance modes.
  • A continuous, comprehensive, consistent and coherent system of careers guidance and education introduced which offers neutral and honest brokerage to all learners whether existing or prospective.


(1) “Skill Shortages”. R G Evans. t-Magazine 2000-2001.

(2) “Partnerships for Progression”. HEFCE. Dec 2001.

(3) “Building Foundations”. R.G.Evans. t-Magazine. May 2000.

(In 2015 graduate under employment and unemployment is a major problem and much of this can be put down to the decision to increase partication in Universites. Yet another failing of Tony Blair and his government of the time. I was on a working party that initially looked the specification of Foundation Degrees which was changed to require 70% students graduating from FDs to progress onto honours instead of being a major post-graduate qualification in their own right – I was very unhappy about the discussion so I resigned).

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