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Research Series M8/97

June 1997

The Participation of Non-traditional Students in Higher Education

The electronic version of this document contains the Introduction and Executive Summary only. The complete Summary Report is available, price £7.00 from the HEFCE.

Introduction and Acknowledgements

The Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick was commissioned in 1996, by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to undertake a study of the participation of traditional and non-traditional students in higher education. Non-traditional students were defined as those who had at least one the following characteristics:

  • from an ethnic minority group;
  • had a long-term disability;
  • possessed non-standard qualifications on entry to higher education;
  • were aged over 25 years on entry to university;
  • were from lower socio-economic groups of origin.

The study consisted of three parts. First, an analysis of the earnings and labour market participation of those who had been non-traditional students, and a comparison of the demographic, socio-economic and educational characteristics of those who were enrolled on higher education courses in 1995. Second, a survey of 2500 students who graduated in 1996 from 15 higher education institutions located in England to ascertain information about their experiences of higher education and their current economic position. Third, five case studies of higher education institutions to identify, in general terms, the costs and benefits to the institution of enrolling non-traditional students.

This summary report discusses the key finding which emerged from the study. The full 207 page report, which includes 69 tables and 14 figures, is available from HEFCE.

The research was carried out between August 1996 and January 1997. At the Institute for Employment Research (IER) the study was directed by Terence Hogarth. In addition, Kate Purcell was responsible for the case studies, Jane Pitcher undertook the literature review and assisted with the case studies, Rob Wilson undertook the analysis of graduates' earnings, and Malcolm Maguire was responsible for the telephone survey. The postal survey was undertaken by IER and administered by Carol Dobson. Linda Wilson undertook the computer analysis. Peter Elias, Abigail McKnight and Chris Hasluck provided advice and commented on early drafts. Their help was much appreciated.

The project was guided by a HEFCE Steering Group which provided invaluable assistance over the course of the study. The members of the Steering Group were: Cliff Allan, Richard Townend, Shekhar Nandy, John Thompson, Nicola Dowds, Eve Jagusiewicz and David Wroe.

Executive Summary

Participation in Higher Education

The analysis of the socio-economic, demographic, and educational characteristics of participants in higher education, based on the Labour Force Survey, revealed the following findings:

  • not surprisingly, young people are more likely to participate in higher education;
  • of the other age groups those aged over 60 years have a greater probability of participating in higher education - indicating a 'retirement effect';
  • being disabled lowers the probability of being in higher education;
  • females have a higher probability of being in higher education;
  • those whose ethnic origin is from the Indian sub-continent have a higher probability of being in higher education compared to either the black or white ethnic groups.

The most important predictor of whether students will go on to higher education was whether or not students possessed 'A' levels - a finding which reinforces the continuing predominance of the traditional educational route into higher education.

Returns to Graduation

Although there is some variation with respect to the unemployment and labour force participation rates between the different types of higher education qualifications, the overall picture to emerge is one of the higher education graduate enjoying a more secure labour market position. Multi-variate analyses confirm, ceteris paribus, that higher education tends to be associated with higher rates of labour market participation and lower unemployment rates. The results also confirm that the non-traditional categories are less likely to be economically active and more likely to be unemployed.

If attention is turned to the impact of higher education on earnings, a similarly favourable picture emerges. In summary, the results confirm the results from many previous studies which show that:

  • earnings increase with experience in the labour market and duration of education;
  • gross hourly earnings increase with the level of qualification;
  • higher level occupations have higher earnings;
  • industry of employment is a key influence;
  • earnings are highest in London and the south-east;
  • ethnic minorities' earnings are depressed relative to those of white people;
  • disabled people have lower earnings than able bodied people;
  • women earn less than men (ceteris paribus);
  • it is nevertheless the case that all groups derived significant financial benefit from higher education, compared to peers who had not undertaken higher education courses.

Overall, the evidence points towards there being both a private return (e.g. higher earnings to the graduate) and a public return (e.g. lower unemployment rates, higher tax returns, etc.) to widening access to higher education.

Graduate Perspectives

The survey of graduates revealed that students of all types found the experience of going to university a valuable and rewarding one. It appears, however, that non-traditional students, compared to traditional ones, had more reservations about entering university and were more likely to find a part-time job essential to maintaining their finances whilst a student. Overall, non-traditional students were more likely to be studying in the new universities.

An indication of whether respondents thought that their investment in higher education was worthwhile can be gauged by the question: 'If you had your time over again, would you choose to go to university?' The vast majority of students, traditional and non-traditional alike, reported that they would do so.

The Institutional Case Studies

Overall, (although there were differences within institutions about both the feasibility and desirability of widening access to their department or institution) there was remarkable consensus across the board about which categories of student did or did nor incur additional costs to institutions, as follows:

  • it was believed that disabled students incur a wide range of additional costs in supporting participation, although many of the initial outlays are also required in support of staff and visitors to the institutions;
  • it was believed that ethnic minority students do not per se incur additional costs in supporting participation but, particularly when ethnicity is reinforced by social and educational disadvantage, incur greater costs to reach and recruit;
  • it was believed that students with non-standard educational qualifications cost more to reach and recruit and, once enrolled, incur substantially greater support costs to enable them to adjust to and complete undergraduate programmes successfully;
  • it was believed that recruiting part-time students requires greater targeted marketing and, once students are enrolled on part-time programmes, they require more support, over a longer period, than full-time students;
  • as above, it was believed that socio-economic class is not, in itself, correlated with greater support needs, although often social disadvantage is reinforced by educational disadvantage. It was, however, recognised that students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and homes where there is no history of participation in higher education are harder to reach and may be suspicious of higher education. Rather than differential funding for students from these categories, the provision of funding for targeted initiatives was thought likely to be a more effective way of widening access.


The fact that an individual's labour market position and earnings are improved by being a graduate suggests an overall benefit to economy and society. By definition the highly paid engage in activities which produce sufficient value added to pay high salaries. Whether the highly qualified will continue to capture relatively high paid jobs given the substantial increase in participation in higher education is a moot point. It is unlikely that the increased supply of graduates will be absorbed by the existing stock of higher level jobs, but is also unlikely that the labour market premium associated with being a graduate will disappear. What is more probable is that the traditional notion of a graduate job will become less well defined with graduates filling a wider range of jobs than hitherto. There is evidence from the survey of students that this is happening. In addition, by bringing the skills acquired from a university level education, graduates are more likely to be able to expand and develop the jobs available to them.

Overall, the study provides convincing evidence to demonstrate that widening access to higher education has produced both private returns to individuals through higher earnings and public returns to the state from the tax revenues generated by individuals' higher productive contribution. For some non-traditional students, however, financing their time at university is problematic. This suggests that, other things being equal, policies designed to widen access need to incorporate the financial means to support some groups through their studies.