Project 2.1

Higher education participation and macro-economic fluctuations: a historical and comparative study

The aim of this project was to develop an economic history study of the relationship between access to, and participation in, higher education and the fluctuations of the economy in the UK, France and the USA.

About this project

Debates about the connections and tensions between the creation and redistribution of wealth are important for evaluating the process of higher education’s expansion and its democratisation.

On the one hand, higher education is increasingly considered to have a strong influence on economic fluctuations and wealth creation and its redistribution. On the other hand, economic fluctuations not only affect the demand for higher education but also its supply by impacting on the level and public/private distribution of funding and provision available to the sector.

The potential tensions between trends in participation in higher education and macro-economic fluctuations raise substantial policy dilemmas which the project proposes to explore.

This project focused on the following questions:

  1. What factors structure the historical relationship between economic fluctuations, inequality/equality, and higher education participation?
  2. Under what socioeconomic conditions does growth or contraction in higher education take place? Can we identify similar and different relationships across countries?
  3. Do socio-economic fluctuations affect the relationship between the dynamic of expansion and the process of stratification of higher education systems, and vice-versa?

The project :

  • compared and contrasted trends and patterns in funding, participation and qualifications in higher education and key socio-economic aggregates since the 1920s;
  • provided a comparative dimension with a focus on the UK, France and the USA – which have all reached mass higher education though different financial models;
  • integrated local and institutional dimensions to examine what this tells us about the processes of institutional diversification or inequality that might be associated with the historical development of higher education systems.


IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society
Vincent Carpentier is a Reader in History of Education at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. He was responsible for CGHE Project 7, ‘A historical lens on higher education staffing: UK and France’. Key outcomes from this project included papers such as Three Stories of Institutional Differentiation: Resource, Mission and Social Inequalities in Higher Education (Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2021) and Academic Workforce in France and the UK in Historical Perspectives (Comparative Education 2023- with Emmanuelle Picard), recently reported in the Conversation (2023) . He was also a Co-Investigator on Project 8, ‘Local and global public good of higher education: 10 nation study’ examining the French context presented in the paper Public Good in French Universities: Principles and practices of the “Republican” Model of Higher education (Compare 2022- with Aline Courtois).


CGHE working papers

Additional publications

Other outputs