Graduation nation: Who benefited from increased UK university admissions?

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Access to university has expanded significantly over the last five decades, and plans for further growth figure prominently on many policy agendas. This column examines the enlargement of post-secondary education in the UK after 1970. The authors argue that expanding university access corresponded with a decline in both the average intelligence of graduates and the wage premium across cohorts. Those who benefited from the expansion were primarily less able students from advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and not the high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds the policy was designed to reach.

More people go to university now than they did 50 years ago. Enrolment in tertiary education has increased more than threefold across OECD countries since 1970 (UNESCO, 2021), and further expansion figures prominently in many political agendas. For example, the EU’s goal for 2030 is for at least 45% to have some form of tertiary educational (Council of the European Union, 2021). But we do not know much about the consequences of such historical and planned expansion processes in terms of the intelligence and socioeconomic background of the students selected into university. The theory might suggest that more people going to university is inherently a good thing, but it is important that policy-makers consider who exactly stands to benefit.

The enlargement of university access enacted in the UK following the 1963 Robbins Report provides an ideal case study to explore this question. In the UK, the share of 17–30 year-olds enrolled in higher education rose from about 5% in 1960 to 43% in 2007 (Chowdry et al., 2013) – an increase that mimicked what had already taken place in the United States (Goldin and Katz, 2008) and would later occur in other OECD countries (Schofer and Meyer, 2005; Meyer and Schofer, 2007). In a recent paper (Ichino et al., 2022), we study the UK experience to evaluate the possible consequences of the ambitious targets for tertiary education currently set in Europe and elsewhere.


The Robbins Report

The intellectual origin of the UK expansion is the Robbins Report (Robbins, 1963). In contrast to more recent policy blueprints, this report deserves credit for basing its recommendations on an assessment of what would happen in the future to the skills of university graduates and non-graduates. The report claimed the existence of large reserves of untapped ability and recommended that all young people qualified to pursue a full-time course in higher education should have the opportunity to do so.

According to the report, “fears that expansion would lead to a lowering of the average ability of students in higher education [were] unfounded”. But these claims have not been adequately investigated, in part because of a lack of data sets containing cognitive-ability measures. Our main data source – Understanding Society: The UK household longitudinal study – allows us to construct a measure of general cognitive ability in addition to predetermined individual measures of socioeconomic and psychological disadvantage.


The consequence of the UK higher education expansion

The top-left panel of Figure 1 shows that our Understanding Society sample reflects the expansion of tertiary education observed in the population: the fraction of graduates increased from about 17% on average in college cohort 1960–1974 to about 32% in college cohort 1990–2004.

Figure 1: Consequences of the UK tertiary education expansion

Sources: Understanding Society and, for wages, UK LFS.

At the same time, the average intelligence of university graduates declined by about 13% of a standard deviation between the 1960s and the 1990s (top-right panel of Figure 1). The average intelligence of non-graduates also declined, indicating that students who attained a university degree in the 1990s (and who would have not attained it in the 1960s) were more intelligent than the average high school graduate of the 1960s, but less intelligent than the average university graduate of the same period.

As for the socioeconomic status of university graduates (bottom-left panel), this has improved relative to the status of non-graduates, which indicates an increasingly unequal access to tertiary education by family background. Finally, the data show that these effects are associated with a decline of the wage gap between university graduates and non-graduates across cohorts (bottom-right panel).

These outcomes were the result of a ‘non-meritocratic’ increase in the number of graduates. This was achieved by reducing non-tuition costs and by lowering qualification barriers at entry into university. Although the ‘untapped ability’ envisioned by Robbins did exist, the higher education policy that eventually prevailed was unfit to draw this ability into universities and ended up favouring primarily low-intelligence children from advantaged families. Only a meritocratic policy based on the selection of intelligent students from any socioeconomic background could have achieved the Robbins Report’s progressive goals. Such a policy would also have been more egalitarian than the policy that was implemented.


An undesirable outcome

Although we do not address the difficult question of which social welfare function should be used to determine the decision to expand university access, in our study we argue that lower average intelligence of university graduates can hardly be characterised as a desirable outcome. In our model, higher intelligence is associated with a lower study effort cost, which implies a social welfare gain from a more intelligent graduate workforce relative to a less intelligent one of the same size.

Other reasons may be considered in a richer model. For example, universities have a double role in society: providing higher education but also supporting basic research at an advanced level in all fields – a task that is facilitated by higher cognitive ability. So, the consequences of a decline in the average intelligence of graduates are going to be far reaching, particularly if there is reluctance to allow the tertiary education institutions of higher quality to be more selective in their acceptance.


Intelligence and disadvantage

At the heart of this issue is the challenge of understanding the relationship between intelligence and socioeconomic disadvantage. Our theoretical interpretation of the evidence indicates that the impact of a policy on average intelligence, social background, and relative earnings of university graduates and non-graduates depends crucially on the correlation between intelligence and socioeconomic disadvantage in the society where the policy is implemented. The reforms advocated by the Robbins Report were motivated by the belief that the UK was a stratified society, where access to tertiary education was facilitated more by an advantaged background than by high intelligence. In a society of this nature, if the correlation between intelligence and disadvantage is positive, even an indiscriminate or progressive expansion policy may increase the fraction of university graduates without reducing their average intelligence, as the report claimed. It could well be that the right goal was pursued in the wrong way.

Our evidence suggests that UK society was indeed stratified. But crucially, it was also characterised by a negative correlation between intelligence and disadvantage. In this context, only a shift towards a strongly meritocratic policy aimed at increasing the graduation probability of students with intelligence above a given threshold (or sufficiently intelligent but disadvantaged) could have achieved the recommendations set out in the Robbins Report. But this is not what happened.


Key lesson

Meritocracy is critical. In the presence of a negative correlation between intelligence and socio-economic disadvantage – which was the case in the UK during the entire period considered in our study – a government that wishes to further expand university access without decreasing the average quality of the graduate workforce should implement the expansion along meritocratic lines. Such a policy does not necessarily exacerbate social inequality: it can actually reduce disparities between equally intelligent students with different backgrounds.

While incomplete as a guide towards establishing the optimal university enrolment rate, our conclusions are a step towards an encompassing social welfare analysis that can inform policy decisions. As university enrolment rates continue to expand around the world, policy-makers must consider who benefits – both in terms of the graduates themselves, but also wider society.


Authors: Aldo Rustichini, Giulio Zanella, Andrea Ichino

Editors’ note: this article first appeared as a column on VoxEU, published on 30 June 2022.