Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 11:48 UK

Majority of young women in university

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

Women celebrating results
The numbers of women at university have surged this decade

A watershed in university participation has been reached - for the first time a majority of young women in England are going to university.

Provisional figures, showing university entrance for 2008-09, show that 51% of young women entered higher education - up from 49% the previous year.

The overall figures also show an all-time high of 45% going to university, including 40% of young men.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are promising even more university places.

Showing the scale of the social change - 20 years ago only about one in five young women went into higher education and 30 years ago it was about one in 10.

In the early 1960s, only about one in 20 young people were going into higher education.

Soaring applications

This latest record high has been driven by a decade-long surge in the numbers of women going to university.

A decade ago, although a slightly different measurement was used, 41% of women were going to university and 37% of men.

The figures published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show the proportion of people aged between 17 and 30 who were entering higher education in the autumn of 2008.

It shows that there has been an increase from 43% to 45% in the overall figure - with an increase of 2 percentage points for both women and men.

There had been a longstanding target for 50% of young people to go to university, which has never been achieved - not least because of a relatively slower growth in male numbers.

Until the early-1990s, more men than women were going to university - but since then women have taken an increasing proportion of places.

'Great investment'

Political opposition to expanding student numbers has also faded - with all the major parties supporting the principle of more university places.

In the Budget last week, the government sought to double the Conservatives' promise of university expansion, by announcing a further 20,000 places for this year.

But this increase will still not keep up the soaring demand for university - with admissions authorities reporting a 23% year on year increase in applications.

There have been warnings that this will mean tens of thousands of well-qualified applicants will not get a place this autumn.

This growth in student numbers reflects international trends - with the number of graduates in industrialised countries almost doubling in the past decade, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, whose department is responsible for universities, welcomed the continued push towards 50% of young people going into higher education.

"This aspiration is important not for the sake of a target, but because Britain's economy needs skilled graduates to innovate, grow and secure the recovery. A university education also sets students up to succeed across their lifetimes and a British degree is still a great investment for any individual."

But responses from the university sector reflected fears over funding.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, warned: "No-one who has the ability should be deprived of the opportunity to go to university... the opportunity to go to university is a question of both social justice and ensuring the UK's economic competitiveness."

The head of the UCU lecturers' union, Sally Hunt, said: "The government should be rightly proud of its efforts to get more people into our universities. However, it needs to be brave enough to back its policy and provide the necessary resources the university sector, and record numbers of students, so desperately need."

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