More than half of young people now going into higher education
THE proportion of young adults going to university has risen above 50 per cent for the first time.
New official figures show that in 2017/18 a record proportion of 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education.
The figures, which cover universities and colleges in Britain and Northern Ireland, show a steady rise in the "higher education participation rate" over the last five years.
The rate increased by 0.3 percentage points from 2016/17 to top 50 per cent for the first time in 2017/18.
These figures are an estimate of the likelihood of a young person taking part in higher education by the time they are 30, based on current participation rates.
It means a pledge made by former Prime Minister Tony Blair 20 years ago has finally been fulfilled.
The latest figures also show a gender gap, with women more likely to go to university than men.
The participation rate for women is 56.6 per cent while for their male peers it is 44.1 per cent.
But as the figures were published, UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson accused universities of "virtue signalling" and failing to prove what they are doing to recruit disadvantaged students.
A billion pounds of students' and taxpayers' money is spent on schemes to widen access to UK universities and colleges each year but many institutions are not showing evidence of the impact it is having, he warned.
Speaking on a visit to King's College, he urged universities to do more to ensure they have a diverse intake of students.
He indicated that universities should be doing more in terms of taking students' background into account when making offers.
He used the example of a King's College medical student who had joined the programme without the grades usually expected and has gone on to come top of the medical school this year.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, London, said: "Universities share the government's desire to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education and ensure that all students are supported to succeed during their studies.
"Progress is being made, with 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England more likely to go to university than ever before. However, we know there is more work to do and universities are redoubling efforts to improve access and support retention."
Universities had set themselves even more ambitious targets to improve equality of opportunity in their new access and participation plans, she added.
"Universities UK has also published recommendations on how universities can address gaps in attainment for black, Asian and minority ethnic students as well as drop-out rates," she said.
"Universities are also calling on the government to prioritise policies to quicken the progress by reintroducing maintenance grants for students most in need, helping reduce drop-out rates and financial barriers to university."