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Another number that’s not quite what it seems: HE participation rates in Scotland to age 30

December 14, 2015

The graph left shows the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) for the most disadvantaged 20% of the population in Scotland between 2006-07 and 2013-14.   The green bars show the HEIPR for entry into college-level higher education (almost all of this will be at HN-level).  The blue bars show the HEIPR for higher education institutions in Scotland (mainly universities and mainly degrees). The black stubs are entry into HEIs in the rest of the UK.

The HEIPR measures the initial entry rate into higher education for people between 16 and 30.  It’s a useful number, because it covers not only school leavers but those working their way into the system in their 20s, maybe after initial difficulty at school.  How it’s calculated is explained in a footnote below, with the full figures.

The HEIPR numbers

As this earlier post noted, since October, under pressure over rising student debt and grant cuts, the Scottish Government has developed an enthusiasm for the HEIPR.   The Cabinet Secretary for Education used it as one of her main positive statistics in broadcast interviews in late October and early November, noting that in 2013-14 the participation rate in higher education for those from the most deprived areas in Scotland was 42%, compared to 35% in 2006-07. The First Minister alluded to a general increase in the HEIPR for this group at FMQs on 3 December. The Commission on Widening Access also gave some prominence to the same numbers in its interim report, published in mid-November.

What these headline figures do not reveal is that – as the graph clearly shows – 90% of the increase  in entry rates for those from most disadvantaged backgrounds was due to study in FE colleges, which is pretty much entirely at HN level.  Rates of direct entry into universities for this group grew very little between 2006-07 and 2013-14.

That matters, because the FM’s access target and the Commission’s remit are both unambiguously framed in terms of entry to university.

For university (HEI) entry in Scotland, the increase was from 15.1% to 15.9%.  Nor – again, as the graph shows – was that a steady trend.  There’s been growth over the past two years, but between 2008 and 2011, this number actually fell, so that by 2011 it was lower than it had been in 2006.

What the HEIPR for HEIs doesn’t capture – but no-one knows

The numbers eventually getting to university will be higher than seen here. That’s because people who do an HN and then move immediately to university are only counted at initial entry into an FE college, to avoid double-counting individuals (though people who have a break of more than six months between an HN and a degree will appear in the HEI entry figures).

The Commission on Widening Access interim report (p63) identified that 1,729 people from the most disadvantaged 20% moved from an HN to a university course in 2013-14.   However, movement from HN to degree is not identical to movement from college to university, as some HN provision is already in universities.  In some HEIs, the first and/or second year of certain degree courses may be designated as an HN.    In 2013-14 2,260 students qualified from HN courses in Scottish HEIs (Table 33 here): that was only 11% of the total of those with HNs, but they will have a higher than average likelihood of movement to a degree.

Frustratingly, for all the prominence given to college as a gateway to university, neither the Commission nor the government has so far produced figures which shed light on what proportion of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds move from college to university (my back of an envelope calculation is that it could be between one-third and a half) or – importantly in this context – how much the number has changed over time. One issue here is the lack of a way of tracking individuals as they move through different parts the Scottish education system. The contract for the longitudinal Scottish School Leavers’ Survey was allowed to lapse in 2007 and recommendations for a replacement made in 2008 have never been acted upon: “the lack of any replacement has led to a significant data gap … such a resource would appear to be a  crucial part of the evidence base” (ScotCen, 2012).  Nor is there a Scottish equivalent to the Unique Learner Number. 

Why the HEIPR still matters

In any case, by measuring which door people walk through first, the HEIPR tells us something important.  Start HE at college and a whole host of subjects will not be available to you at first, such as law, which was the First Minister’s springboard to later success.  Switching to non-HN subjects later will mean one or more extra years’ study, for the people least able to afford that.  As the Commission (p64) has noted:

[there is] a clear trend that in the more selective institutions a large majority of those admitted with HN qualifications begin in first year. Effectively this means that these students, despite having already achieved an HE qualification, must start from scratch. In the case of students with an HND, this means remaining at the same level of study for up to a further 2 years. Here, the possible academic and financial duplication is clear.

This evidence has led some researchers to argue that this two-tiered approach to articulation is contributing to a social stratification of higher education. As things stand, students from deprived backgrounds who enter university through the college appear at a significant disadvantage to those who enter through more traditional routes, especially in terms of the most selective institutions and courses.

It would therefore be an important shift, if we’ve moved from a position where those from the most deprived backgrounds were around 25% more likely to go to college than university in 2006-07, to one where they are now nearly 60% more likely to go down the college route.  We would have expanded overall opportunity, but with a real risk of reinforcing perceptions that college rather than university is the “normal” post-school route for this group  – with all the limitations and/or extra costs that carries for students who in a more equitable system and with the right support could have managed fine going direct to a degree course.

Why we should have known this sooner

How difficult was it to obtain these numbers? Not at all.  After recently reducing how much HEIPR detail it published spontaneously, the Scottish Funding Council committed itself to providing further breakdowns on request, which in this case it was able to do very quickly.

Yet, as far as I can tell, none of those who made use of the headline “35% to 42%” figure had asked how it broke down between different types of provision, suggesting a surprising absence of curiosity about a fundamental point.

As ever, it has to be said that HN-level HE can be a great option for many people. But it’s not what the government is committed to increasing or the Commission charged with thinking about.

These figures show that over the past eight years very little progress has been made in increasing the proportion of people from the most deprived backgrounds who go directly into university by the age of 30. Indeed, at times, that figure has actually gone backwards.  That’s an important finding: in a world where those in positions of power and influence are keen to quote the HEIPR, it shouldn’t depend on one somewhat grumpy but inquisitive blogger to make that clear.



Here are the full figures provided by the SFC

HEIPR by institution type, 2006-07 to 2013-14, for entrants from an MD20 area (prior to study)
Number of Entrants* Overall Scottish HEIs Scottish Further Education Colleges Higher Education Institutions in Rest of UK
2006 5,159 34.6% 15.1% 19.1% 0.4%
2007 5,101 34.3% 15.5% 18.5% 0.3%
2008 5,374 36.0% 16.1% 19.4% 0.5%
2009 5,651 38.2% 15.8% 21.9% 0.5%
2010 5,771 39.4% 15.0% 23.7% 0.6%
2011 5,577 38.7% 14.2% 23.9% 0.7%
2012 5,572 39.0% 15.4% 23.3% 0.2%
2013 5,891 41.7% 15.9% 25.4% 0.4%
Sources: Scottish Funding Council, HESA, National Records for Scotland
*not all entrants could be matched to a deprivation quintile

This is how the HEIPR is explained by the SFC (p28 here).  Looking at the table showing how the published number is calculated is probably the easiest way to understand the underlying calculation.

The Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) roughly equates to the probability that a 16 year old will participate in Higher Education by the age of 30.  The Scottish HEIPR, displayed in Table M, is a measure of all initial entrants aged between 16 and 30 (inclusive).  The measure does not show the proportion currently participating, the proportion continuing beyond the first six months, or those who successfully complete a course. It measures access to higher education and is suitable for comparison with measures in other countries. Key strengths of these rates, compared to simple student statistics, are that these participation rates are more inclusive and better recognise the importance of lifelong learning.
The initial participation rates for each age group (16 to 30) in scope of this calculation are summed to give the HEIPR.
Table M: Scottish Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) by Age 2012-13 and 2013-14
2012-13 2013-14
Age Initial Entrants Population Initial Participation Rate Initial Entrants Population Initial Participation Rate Year-on-Year Change in HEIPR
16    1,006        61,590 1.6%    1,061        61,362 1.7%
17     9,552        62,117 15.4%     9,569          61,868 15.5%
18   13,174        65,042 20.3%   13,039          63,905 20.4%
19     3,882        68,273 5.7%     3,911          67,369 5.8%
20     1,722        73,514 2.3%     1,688          69,697 2.4%
21     1,199        76,082 1.6%     1,148          74,680 1.5%
22          899        74,210 1.2%          938          76,895 1.2%
23          737        72,919 1.0%          781          74,243 1.1%
24          738        73,017 1.0%          701          72,573 1.0%
25          614        71,332 0.9%          616          72,826 0.8%
26          596        70,484 0.8%          598          71,143 0.8%
27          542        69,857 0.8%          534          70,361 0.8%
28          546        67,971 0.8%          511          69,909 0.7%
29          477        68,242 0.7%          443          68,013 0.7%
30        412        69,380 0.6%          417        68,417 0.6%
16-30   36,096 1,044,029 54.7% 35,955   1,043,260 55.0%
Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and National Records of Scotland (NRS)




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