Wider range of students taking degrees, suggests study
Universities have broadened access to higher education to include more students from disadvantaged areas, a new Universities UK report shows.
Full-time undergraduates from the most disadvantaged areas, those places which had had the fewest youngsters going to university, rose 42%, from some 22,000 in 2005 to more than 31,000 in 2014.
But numbers of part-time and mature students fell during the same period.
The government has pledged to help a wider range of people to take degrees.
Their proposals, outlined last month, included more help for non-traditional groups to go to university.
Researchers analysed the home addresses of students at all UK universities and divided them into five groups, according to the proportion of young people going to university from the neighbourhood.
Each of these groups represents around 20% of all young people and are ranked by the Higher Education Statistics Agency from those with the lowest proportion of young people who attend university, considered the most disadvantaged, to areas with the highest, considered advantaged.
In 2013, for example, young people from the most successful areas were 2.7 times more likely to go to university than those from the least successful areas - but this imbalance is beginning to improve, suggest the figures.
By 2013-14, more than 11% of undergraduates came from the most disadvantaged areas - compared with less than 9% a decade before.
"One thing that leaps out from this year's report is how much the student body has changed over the period," say the researchers.
"Students are more likely to be studying full-time and are younger."
Full-time students made up nearly three-quarters of all students in 2013-14, up from just over 60% in 2004-5, they note.
But the number of part-time students - both undergraduates and postgraduates - fell by 29% in the 10 years to 2014, they add.
Part-time students faced multiple blows in terms of funding, says the report.
They were hit by the removal in 2008-09 of funding for qualifications equivalent to or lower than ones they already had and by the increase in student fees in 2012, says the report.
"At the same time, the economic downturn has also caused a reduction in the number of students able to self-fund part-time study and a reduction in the number of employers willing to support employees through part-time study."
There was also a fall in the number of older students - for example the number of undergraduates aged over 25 fell from 647,000 in 2004-5 to 432,000 in 2013-14.
This meant that by 2013-14 under-25s made up three-quarters of all undergraduate students and a third of postgraduates, the research suggests.
The two factors are linked as people aged 25 and over make up a large proportion of those studying part-time (81% in 2013-14), explain the researchers.
The government has announced tuition fee and maintenance support for part-time students and has asked Universities UK to lead a task force on how best to support progress in social mobility through widening participation in higher education.
"It is not enough for students from non-traditional backgrounds to start university, if they are not supported through to graduation," the report warns.
Too many students from the most disadvantaged group drop out after their first year, note the researchers.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group university think tank, said despite the successes highlighted in the report there was "continuing evidence" older and part-time students were "getting a raw deal".
Ms Tatlow said planned cuts in funding for disadvantaged students would "make it harder for universities to provide the right support".
"The prime minister's ambition to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to university will be difficult to achieve without investment," she said.
The National Union of Students promised to work with Universities UK to share their expertise on widening participation.
"Widening access means investing in lifelong learning and different types of provision, specifically for part-time students as often they are women or mature students." said NUS vice-president, Sorana Vieru.