Expanding access to education is my passion. It is the reason I stood to be National President of NUS, and it is the priority for the NUS I lead.
When I am visiting students’ unions, speaking to different sector bodies or meeting politicians, I talk a lot about the impact on my life of access to tertiary education. How I left school with one GCSE and became a single mother, and though my daughters are the best thing in my life, I wasn’t sure if I had a bright future. But with a bit of luck and a lot of determination, a few years later I got to go to Lewisham College and from there gained a Diploma in Leadership and Management, got involved in my students’ union and now here I am. Access to further education changed my life, but I know that too many people don’t have the same opportunity to go to college. Too many people can’t get onto the apprenticeship or the HE course that would help them do whatever they are passionate about.
Sometimes, people can get in, but then find they can’t get on. They can’t complete the qualification, or if they do, they can’t secure a quality job afterwards. And while there can be barriers for any potential student to get in and get on, the barriers are much higher for those from working class backgrounds.
For example, those from wealthy backgrounds are 2.5 times more likely to know about degree apprenticeships. The number of adult learners in FE has dropped by 1.3 million in less than ten years. Young people living in the highest participation areas remain 2.3 times more likely to go to university than those from the lowest participation areas, while dropout rates for working class students are rising.
We must smash the barriers to getting in and getting on, but we can only do that if we understand how class and poverty impact on access and participation now, and the ways we can improve education for working class students in the future. That’s why I established the Poverty Commission as the priority for my first year as NUS President.
A range of talents
The Poverty Commission was a different approach for NUS. I wanted to bring together everyone who could help us identify the problems and, most importantly, identify the solutions. I wanted to hear from apprentices, learners and students, from academics, providers and sector agencies, and from trade unions, campaign organisations, and charities. To explore the issues further, we also recruited 12 experienced and diverse commissioners – including a student from Cambridge, a college principal and a barrister – and they held evidence sessions where we quizzed 13 different experts on everything from debt to early years education.
The range and quality of the evidence we received was amazing. I want to thank everyone who responded to the call for evidence, and who gave us so much of their time, input and knowledge.
The poverty premium
What did we find? Our first report shows that class and poverty in further and higher education are linked. The decisions made about the funding of education and of students; the assumptions made about students and learners that all too often stem from middle-class perspectives; and the increasing cost of living all work together to create barriers to getting in and getting on.
Most importantly, the system creates a “poverty premium” that means working class students all too often pay more. They pay more directly – like higher interest because they’re more reliant on debt. And they pay indirectly – like higher transport costs because they have to travel longer distances. The impact is to restrict choice, restrict access and increase drop out.
We also found that student income is inadequate in FE and HE – but increasing income alone, though absolutely necessary, needs to be accompanied by measures to stop expenditure, especially in relation to accommodation and transport, rising faster still. And there is a range of non-financial, structural problems, including a lack of high quality information, advice and guidance, a lack of provision in some areas and cultural barriers to working class students who just don’t think tertiary education is for them.
If we are truly to open up education, there’s a lot to do. What’s next? One of the aims I had with this report was to ensure the Government reviewed the funding of tertiary education in England – and secured the review even before the Commission reported! NUS will be taking the findings to Philip Augar and his advisory panel as part of the call for evidence and beyond. We had our first meeting last week, and we will continue this dialogue.
However, even if NUS can secure all the changes we need at a national level, the FE and HE sectors have got to make changes too. We want providers to ensure the cost of participation is fair, by developing strategies to reduce the costs of studying as far as possible, ensure transparency over the costs that remain, and ensure affordable accommodation for low-income students as part of access and participation plans. We need students to be able to access additional support if they need it too. We also want institutions to develop student employment strategies that help students access high quality work while they study and working-class students access to paid internships so they have the same opportunities as their richer peers. And we want better IAG that starts with the perspective of the student. I very much look forward to working with the sector to make these changes happen.
Some of the issues we found are deep-seated and I know we won’t transform everything overnight. Even so, year two of my presidency will be all about taking this report forward, developing additional analyses and resources, helping students’ unions campaign locally and having conversations with all those who can influence this agenda. I can’t wait to get started.