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DIFFHE: Changing Transitions to a Differentiated Higher Education System

A Research Project funded by the Nuffield Foundation

Final Seminar

“Changing Inequalities and Access to a Differentiated Higher Education System”, Friday 14th June 2013

This seminar presented the findings of the research project on Changing Transitions to a Differentiated Higher Education System, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.


The study analyses administrative data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to explore changes in the characteristics of applicants and entrants to full-time higher education (HE) between 1996 and 2010, and the ways in which Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are becoming more differentiated. The study compares the four home countries of the UK over the first full decade since devolution, and examines trends in cross-border movements.

Background to the Research

As more young people continue learning beyond 16 the point of entry to HE has become a crucial transition which shapes future life chances. The importance of this transition point is recognised in successive governments’ emphasis on fair admissions and widening participation. However, the significance of the HE entry point is not simply based on whether or not an individual enters HE: it may increasingly depend on the type of institution entered. As the HE system itself moves from an elite to a mass system, we must ask not only “who goes and who does not go to university?” but also “who goes where?” Institutional differentiation, therefore, represents an increasingly important source of divisions within UK HE.

A second and related source of divisions is across the four home countries of the UK. Different patterns of historical development in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have given rise to different patterns of institutional differentiation. Since 1992, administrative and subsequently political control over HE have been devolved to these countries, although some functions, including science funding, research assessment and student admissions, remain at a UK level. The study will compare trends in applications and admissions across the home countries, examine cross-border flows, and ask to what extent we can still talk of a “UK system” of HE.



Published and working papers from this project will be posted when available.


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