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Barriers to Participation in Higher Education

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However, there are a number of other barriers which also contribute to this horizontal stratification of British universities with the most important summarized here.


The posting below looks at a number of barriers to participation in higher education at British universities.  It is from Chapter 9: Higher Education and Social Justice, in the book, Key Issues in Education and Social Justice 2nd Edition, by Emma Smith. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1S Copyright © Emma Smith 2018. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Barriers to Participation in Higher Education


There are many reasons why inequalities in higher education persist, not least the perennial link between academic attainment and social disadvantage which acts as an important barrier to participation for some students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. However, there are a number of other barriers which also contribute to this horizontal stratification of British universities with the most important summarized here.

The notion of barriers to participation is, according to Gorard et al. (2007), an attractive one because it suggests that there is an explanation for differences in participation between certain groups as well as a possible solution – the removal of the barriers. So, if the cost of higher education is a barrier that prevents those from low-income groups participating, then it might be argued that making university free of charge will remove that barrier and widen participation. Indeed, a key aim of research in this area has been to determine the nature and consequences of these barriers to participation. Many of these barriers are considered to lie in the increased financial cost of university and in other areas such as geographical mobility and the lack of flexible learning opportunities, as well as in institutional barriers such as entry requirements and timing of provision. There is a huge literature describing these barriers to participation and their potential impact on the life chances of would be participants. We will look briefly at three of the most pertinent here:

·            Institutional barriers, for example, entry requirements, course timetabling.

·            Dispositional barriers, for example, attitudes towards studying.

·            Situational barriers, for example, tuition fees.


Institutional barriers to participation

Previous research suggests that in most contexts the key barrier to participation in higher education is prior attainment (Chowdry et al. 2013; Hemsley Brown 2015; Smith and White 2015). But given that success in education is predicated on success at the previous educational stage (Gorard et al. 2007) and as young people from less affluent social groups achieve at lower levels through schooling, it is perhaps unsurprising that entry to HE is also stratified by social characteristics such as occupational class background and economic activity. There may be geographical barriers as well. Students who do not live near a high-ranking institution and who may have to live at home while at university may be restricted in the choice of places to study (Mangan et al. 2010). Furthermore, those on low incomes may be more debt averse when it comes to incurring additional costs of moving to go to university (Davies et al. 2009). A further institutional barrier might be the inflexible admissions processes that universities adopt: recruitment tends to take place at a single point (usually in September/October) in the academic year rather than recruiting students throughout the year. In most institutions lectures run only on weekdays from 9 am until 6 pm and undergraduate degree programmes last three years, with no teaching during the summer months. For ‘traditional’ students who may have recently left home and moved to study in a different part of the country, such arrangements may present little difficulty. But for those who may have to juggle caring roles, work and other responsibilities, this sort of practice may act as an additional barrier to their participation. Greater flexibility, including accelerated two-year degree programmes, were a core feature of the 2016 Higher Education White Paper (BIS 2016a) and it will be interesting to see the extent to which they become a reality in the higher education marketplace.

Dispositional barriers to participation

A concern of some participants that HE might not be for ‘people like them’ has been a key focus of research into barriers to participation. These dispositional factors include a reluctance to apply to an elite university because of a fear of not fitting in (for example, Forsyth and Furlong 2003; Reay et al. 2005) or a lack of knowledge about what university life may be like, particularly among students who have been away from formal education for a prolonged period of time. Another important factor can be a difficulty in adapting to the culture of university. This can result in a lack of motivation and poorer attitudes to learning, which might be one – but certainly not the only – reason why some students may drop out (Gorard et al. 2007). Research also shows that students from under-represented groups are also less likely to engage in non-academic activities (e.g. sport clubs or societies), suggesting that they might be less well equipped to demonstrate the well-rounded CV that many employers are looking for (Moore et al. 2013). This also might be related to the fact that these students were more likely to be in paid employment while studying compared to their more advantaged peers.

Situational barriers to participation

A key situational barrier to participation would be the increased financial cost of study, a topic that is of particular interest at the moment. In October 2010 Lord Browne, the former chief executive of British Petroleum, presented his long-awaited report into higher education funding (BIS 2010). The key recommendation of the Browne Report was a lifting of the cap on university tuition fees from its then rate of £3,290 per year allowing universities more flexibility to set their own fee structure. From September 2017 the maximum amount English universities can charge annually for tuition fees was raised to £9,250. Students are not required to pay this amount ‘up front’ but receive a loan that they are expected to start paying back once their income reaches a threshold of £21,000. Tuition loans accrue interest and are written off after 30 years (thestudentroom, n.d.). Means tested maintenance grants to support living costs have also been phased out in England to be replaced by maintenance loans.

The recommendation that students pay a proportion of the costs of their tuition is not new: it was mentioned by Robbins in the early 1960s (Committee on Higher Education 1963: para. 641-7) and addressed more fully by Dearing in the late 1990s (NCIHE 1997). However, this recent trebling of fees represents a huge change in the nature of higher education, particularly in England. English students now pay the highest fees for public university education in the world (OECD 2016b). There is also concern that these high levels of tuition fees and the removal of means tested maintenance grants will hit poorest students the hardest. Research already indicates that along with higher average levels of debt (currently about £57,000), students from more socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are also likely to earn less after graduating from universities than fellow graduates from wealthier families (Britton et al. 2016; Adams 2017).

Note that in the other home nations there are different arrangements for funding universities. In Wales, for example, at the time of writing, tuition fees were still subsidised by the Welsh government. Welsh students going to university in 2017/18 were entitled to an annual tuition fee grant of £4,954 (which is not paid back) and a tuition fee loan (which is paid back) of £4,046 (if they study in Wales) or £4,296 (if they study elsewhere in the UK) (studentfinancewales, n.d.). For Scottish students wanting to study for a first degree in Scotland, tuition is currently set at £1,820. Scottish students wishing to study in England, for example, will pay up to the maximum English universities can charge – currently £9,250 (SAAS, n.d.). Opponents of fees have argued that they would deter students from the poorest families – often the most debt averse – from applying to university, while having no impact on the very wealthiest who are likely to be accustomed to paying upwards of £9,000 in fees for a top independent school place anyhow (Chowdry et al. 2013; OECD 2011a). However, rates of participation of under-represented groups have been unaffected by rises in tuition fees and, as indicated above, more disadvantaged students continue to go to university than ever before.

At the time of writing university tuition fees are probably the hottest education topic. With Lord Adonis, a key figure behind New Labour’s lifting of the cap on tuition fees – from £1,000 to £3,000 – in 2004, writing in The Guardian newspaper:

How did we get from the idea of a reasonable contribution to the cost of university tuition to today’s Frankenstein’s monster of £50,000-plus debts for graduates on modest salaries who can’t remotely afford to pay back these sums while starting families?... In my view, fees have now become so politically diseased that they should be abolished entirely. (Adonis 2017)

Despite introducing tuition fees in 1998, Labour fought the 2017 general election on a manifesto pledge to abolish higher education tuition fees (Labour Party 2017) and even the current government has admitted that it was time for a ‘national debate’ on university tuition (Green 2017). This follows similar proposals in the USA, where student debt stands at $1.3 trillion (Sanders 2015) and in Germany where tuition fees for undergraduate programmes at public universities were ended in 2014.

Reflection: What is the fairest way to fund university?

There are many different ways in which you might debate this topic. Here we consider the extent to which society benefits from having a university-educated population and should therefore shoulder the cost.    

One perspective is that having a highly educated workforce benefits the whole of society. Everyone benefits from having university educated doctors, lawyers, engineers and so on, and therefore it is fair that society supports those individuals who have the ability and/or desire to pursue these careers. It would be unfair for them to incur large personal debt in order to undertake their studies.

An alternate point of view is given by Brian whose comment on a BBC noticeboard read:

It simply isn’t fair that bin men and postmen pay for students to study media studies through their taxes. It is surely fair for those students to pay, when their salary allows it in the future, for their own education. (Written by Brian in London at 13: 20, BBC 2010b)

This view argues that although doctors and others may benefit society in their work, they already reap large personal reward in the form of enhanced salaries and status in society and therefore it is only fair that they contribute to some of the cost of this. Saying that society should fund this is, for some, akin to the argument that lowering taxes for the rich encourages them to spend more which in turn creates work for the poor.

What are your thoughts on this?



Adams, R. (2017) ‘Poorest students will finish university with £57,000 debt, says IFS’, 5 July, The Guardian, accessed 5 July 2017 from:

Adonis, A. (2017) ‘I put up tuition fees. It’s now clear they have to be scrapped’, 7 July, The Guardian, accessed 7 July 2017 from:

BIS (2010) Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (The Browne Review), Department for Business Innovation and Skills, accessed 14 March 2018 from:

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N. and Vignoles, A. (2016) How English Domiciled Graduate Earnings Vary with Gender, Institution Attended, Subject and Socio-economic Background, Institute for Fiscal Studies, Working Paper W16/06, accessed 19 October 2017 from:

Chowdry, H., Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Goodman, A. and Vignoles, A. (2013) ‘Widening participation in higher education: analysis using linked administrative data’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), 176: 431-457.

Committee on Higher Education (1963) Higher Education, report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins (The Robbins Report). London: HMSO.

Davies, P., Mangan, J. and Hughes, A. (2009) ‘Participation, financial support and the marginal student’, Higher Education, 58(2): 193-204.

Forsyth, A. and Furlong, A. (2003) Losing Out? Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Experience in Further and Higher Education. Bristol: Policy Press.

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Green, D. (2017) ‘Damian Green admits Tories may need to review tuition fees’, 1 July, The Guardian, accessed 3 August 2017 from:

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