Project 2.1

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

The aim of this project is 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.

Project team


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 will focus 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 will:

  • compare and contrast trends and patterns in funding, participation and qualifications in higher education and key socio-economic aggregates since the 1920s;
  • provide a comparative dimension with a focus on the UK, France and the USA – which have all reached mass higher education though different financial models;
  • integrate 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.