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Raising the Participation Age (RPA)
The government has increased the age to which all young people in England must continue in education or training, requiring them to continue until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17 from 2013 and until their 18th birthday from 2015

Higher Education

1. Basic facts about Higher Education (HE)[1]

Higher Education in the UK is flourishing. Just under 400,000 people entered full time undergraduate courses in 2015-16. There are now more than 1.3 million students currently studying for an undergraduate degree in the UK.

The proportion of 18 year olds living in England who go to UK universities and colleges increased to 31.3% per cent in 2015-16 – the highest level recorded for this age group.

The proportion of 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas in England who go to higher education is around 60 per cent. The proportion coming from the most disadvantaged areas is around 20 per cent. The Government wants to encourage more young people from disadvantaged areas to go to university or undertake an apprenticeship.

In England there are around 120 Universities and University Colleges. Around 240 Further Education and Sixth form Colleges also deliver higher education courses such as Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), foundation degrees, and bachelor degrees.

Over 37,000 higher education courses are available across the UK in total. Young people applying straight from school almost always apply through UCAS. They can apply for up to five courses, and most choose up to five similar courses to increase their chances of getting a place.

Alternative Providers

An alternative provider is basically any provider of higher education courses that doesn’t directly receive grant funding from public sources.

Students at alternative providers can only access government loans and grants if their course at the provider has been ‘designated’. Of the 500-600 alternative providers in the UK, around 100 have courses designated for student support.

To be designated the provider that runs these courses needs to meet certain criteria set out by the Government. This means that, if the Government has designated a course, the student can feel confident in the quality of its teaching and the immediate future of the institution. Currently around 45,000 students who receive Government grants and/or loans are studying higher education with an alternative provider. 

2. Why everyone should think about higher education

Higher Education transforms lives and we want to open up the opportunity to many more people. Increasingly, more job options are open to people who have a degree: opportunities for graduates can be found in more than 170 industries and 1,500 job roles, covering an extensive range of skills levels and occupations – from graphic design, to accountancy, to electric vehicle engineering.

This trend is reflected in the earnings and employment potential for graduates, which shows that University remains a good long-term investment. Research suggests that, over a life-time, graduates will earn, on average, over £100,000 more than those who did not enter higher education.

A degree from a UK university is one of the best routes to gaining employment and starting a rewarding career. 87 per cent of young people (21-30 year olds) with an undergraduate first degree are employed – compared with 70 per cent of young people (21-30 year olds) who hold qualifications below undergraduate degree level. 

Graduate recruitment surveys indicate a growing demand for graduates, with recruitment specialist High Fliers predicting graduate vacancies in 2015 to be more than the pre-recession peak of 2007.

3. How do people find out about higher education?

There is a range of usual sources of advice and help and the following are the most commonly used methods.

1.Unistats and the Key Information Set (

Unistats is the official site to search for, and compare, data and information about university and college courses from across the UK.

Unistats draws together comparable information in areas students have identified as important in making decisions about what and where to study.

The core information it contains is called the Key Information Set (KIS), which is updated annually and includes the information that students said was most useful to them when choosing a course:

  • student satisfaction from the National Student Survey (NSS)
  • student destinations on finishing their course from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey
  • how the course is taught and study patterns
  • how the course is assessed
  • course accreditation by professional bodies
  • course costs (such as tuition fees and accommodation).

Other organisations use KIS data as par tof their work. For example, Which? use the KIS data as part of their HE website (which?university). 

2. UCAS (

UCAS is a centralised admissions service for undergraduate admissions to Higher Education. The vast majority of people applying to university do so through UCAS. In 2014, the undergraduate admissions service handled almost three million applications from 700,000 UK, EU, and international, students.

The UCAS website offers a wealth of information for young people, helping them to decide whether university is right for them and if so, which university and which course. It also informs them about funding and finance, and has regular blogs from young people who are currently applying to or have just started university.

UCAS has a comprehensive list of open days, where applicants can visit universities to help them decide whether they want to study there. There are a few ways you can research universities and colleges – read their websites or prospectuses, or speak to them at UCAS events and course provider open days.

UCAS’ application system is called Apply. There are two deadlines for applying: one is mid-October, to apply to Oxford or Cambridge and to courses in medicine, veterinary science or dentistry. The main deadline is mid-January, for all other courses and institutions.

Students then wait to receive a decision from the universities they have applied to. The offers are usually conditional upon achieving certain exam results if the student has not completed their course. Students choose a firm and an insurance choice and will have their offer made unconditional if they achieve the required grades in August.

3. Other help

When choosing a degree and an institution, students will usually consult the institution’s website as well as Unistats and UCAS. In addition they may talk through their ideas with family, friends, teachers or advisers, and find other opinions online. They may also check league tables that rank course providers. The Guardian, The Times and The Complete University Guide are some of the more impartial places to look.

4. Tuition fees and student finance

Student Finance England (SFE) provides financial support on behalf of the UK Government to students from England entering higher education in the UK.

The two main costs students have while studying are tuition fees and living costs. SFE offers loans to cover tuition fees and loans for maintenance (ie living costs whilst studying). Students won’t make repayments on these loans until they have left higher education and their income is over £21,000 a year.

Students repay 9% of their income over £21,000 and if they are employed deductions will be made from their pay through the HMRC tax system. If their income falls to £21,000 or below the repayments will stop. Any outstanding loan balance will be written off 30 years after entering repayment. Interest is applied to the loan at a maximum rate of RPI+3%.

Students apply online for the loans and should do so in advance of starting their course.

Tuition fees

The maximum tuition fee publicly funded universities and colleges can charge for a full time undergraduate course currently is £9000. For a part time undergraduate course it is £6,750. Students do not have to pay this up front. The tuition fee loan is paid directly from SFE to the university. The tuition fee loan is not means-tested.

(Alternative providers can currently charge any level of fee they wish, but eligible students can only get a tuition fee loan of up to £6,000 a year.)

Maintenance loans

The maintenance loan is means-tested. All students are eligible for some level of maintenance loan. The amount depends on where the student lives and studies. The loan is paid into the student’s bank account at the start of each term.

  • Students living at their parental home can receive up to £6,904 per year.
  • Students living away from home and outside London can receive up to £8,200 per year.
  • Students living away from home and studying in London can receive up to £10,702.

Extra support

Many universities and colleges offer financial support to their students through bursaries and scholarships:


  • linked to personal circumstances and often, household income
  • awards can include discounted tuition fees, accommodation or cash


  • linked to academic results or ability in an area such as sport or music
  • can be subject specific and are usually limited in numbers

Other financial help and support may also be available if you:

  • have children or an adult dependent on you
  • have a disability, including a mental-health condition or specific learning difficulty
  • study an NHS or Social Work course

5. Aren’t tuition fees putting people off University?

Not at all.

In 2015, the total number of applicants who were accepted for entry increased to 532,300, the highest ever. Acceptances from England also rose to a new high of 394,400.  

The entry rate (percentage of the 18 year old population who are accepted for entry to a full-time undergraduate course via UCAS) for English 18 year olds in 2015 was 31.3%, the highest it has ever been.

Tuition fees have not put off young people.

6. What about students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds?

More and more people from “non-traditional” backgrounds are now studying higher education at University or college. The days when University was the preserve of the privileged few are long gone.

  • 18.5% of 18 year olds from disadvantaged areas in England entered Higher Education in 2015 (a record high).
  • An estimated 16.4% of pupils with Free School Meals (FSM) progressed to Higher Education at age 18 in 2015.
  • An estimated 66% of A level students from state schools and colleges progressed to Higher Education by age 19 in 2012/13. 
  • Young women are a third more likely to enter higher education than young men: 26.2% of 18 year old men from the UK entered Higher Education in 2015, and 35.4% of women. 
  • 32.6% of young entrants to full-time first degree courses were from lower Socio-Economic Classification groups. 
  • People from ethnic minorities do well in getting to University. Record proportions of English domiciled 18 year olds who were from an ethnic minority and had been to a state school entered higher education in 2014. The proportions of each group going to University were:
  • Asian 41%
  • Black 37%
  • Chinese 58%
  • Mixed 32%
  • White 28%

7. How can schools link up with Universities?

National networks for collaborative outreach[2]

The National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) scheme a brings together universities and further education colleges into local networks to provide coordinated outreach activities for schools and colleges.

The scheme involves 200 universities and FE Colleges and will reach 4,300 secondary schools and colleges through 35 local and 3 national networks.

How does it work?

Each network has appointed a single point of contact (SpoC), who will:

  • help teachers and advisers find out about the outreach activity which universities and colleges run in their area
  • provide general advice about progression into HE.

Each networks hosts a website with information about outreach activity and signposts other information to support schools and colleges as they prepare their students for HE. A .list of networks and contacts can be found at

The three national networks will offer support to specific groups of students at national level. These groups are: students wishing to progress to Oxford or Cambridge, older learners wishing to continue or return to study, and care leavers.

8. What do Universities have to do to help students from poorer backgrounds?[3]

Universities and Colleges must reach out to and help people from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds if they want to charge more than £6,000 a year for a full time higher education course. They have to say what they are doing in an “Access Agreement”. Access Agreements are high level documents and are not likely to be of much interest to schools or young people. What is important about them is that a University or College cannot charge more than £6,000 a year unless it has an Access Agreement approved by the Office for Fair Access.

In their Access Agreements, Universities and Colleges say they expect to spend nearly £750m in 2016/17 on measures to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What does an access arrangement contain?

Access Agreements set out how institutions will sustain or improve access and student success for students from poorer and under-represented groups. An Access Agreement sets out:

  • the institution’s fees
  • what it will do to attract and support students from under-represented groups (including bursaries and other financial support, as well as outreach such as summer schools, class visits to university, mentoring schemes and other outreach activities)
  • how much the institution will spend on helping students from under-represented groups
  • the targets the institution sets itself to make sure it does better at helping these students
  • how the institution will tell students about the financial support it is offering.




Source: Higher Education: A fact sheet, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

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