In the early part of the 20th century higher education was very much a minority pursuit.
Fewer than 10,000 first degrees were awarded each year in the 1920s. In 1940, less than 2% of young people went to university. Today, the Open University alone awards more than 10,000 degrees every year, and nearly half of 18 to 30 year-olds have participated in higher education.
In the 20th century, there have been four waves of expansion in higher education occurring just after WWII, in the 1960s and 1970s, the mid-1990s, and during the first decade of this century. The intense scrutiny and reform of the sector in the 1960s laid the foundations for a system of mass participation, with the Government accepting the guiding principle of the Robbins report (1963) that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.” By 1990, 20% of young people were going to university, as many as got three or more O-levels in 1962.
Changes in the early 1990s that granted university status to over 30 ‘polytechnics’, brought about a single unified system of higher education and still greater participation, especially among women: since 1994 (the year polytechnics were included), they have received the majority of undergraduate degrees awarded.
There was a decline in undergraduate enrolment between 2009 and 2010. This, along with the increase in the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 in England, has the potential to result in the first sustained fall in first degrees awarded since the mid 1980s.
By contrast, enrolments from abroad continue to rise, and the international dimension of UK higher education is seen as one of its key successes. In academic year 2010/11 there were almost 430,000 overseas students. 69 different countries – from Australia to Zimbabwe – each sent more than a thousand students to UK universities. The UK had twelve universities ranked in the top 100 in the latest world rankings and four of these were in London.
Minority interest to mass participation. The chart shows the number of first degrees and higher degrees (Masters, doctorates etc.) awarded each year from 1919.