The Prime Minister has set out an ambition for Britain to be “a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing”. Everyone agrees that this is a worthy aspiration. But, as the Social Mobility Commission’s December 2015 State of the Nation confirmed, we are not making it a reality.
Under recent Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments, Britain has become more unequal. Since 1979, the top 10 per cent’s share of both income and wealth has increased. They now have nearly 40 per cent income share and 66% of all wealth. Within that, the top 1% has nearly a quarter of the nation’s wealth.
There is also a deficit in participatory democracy. Over 90% of the population went to state schools but 71% of senior judges, 62% of the senior armed forces and 55% of Civil Service departmental heads were educated independently. Many reasons are given for this; lack of aspiration and ambition, poor quality schooling, lack of social capital and narrow recruitment criteria into some prestigious professions – but universities have to take some of the blame. We can see from the research published by SMF today that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are under-represented at most universities – and significantly under-represented at high-tariff institutions.
Some try, like Pontius Pilate, to wash their hands of the problem. But they could make a real difference.
So what should we do? First, we should stop turning the diversity of our higher education system into a hierarchy. Instead, we should recognise that different institutions have different kinds of excellence and can help people meet their different aspirations. The fair access agenda – the drive to get bright poor students into high tariff institutions – has its place. But if it diverts students from applying for the course that is best for them – or tells employers that they will only find great graduates in a few institutions – it does more harm than good.
A student wanting to study English Literature is likely to be stretched and inspired by Oxford University. A student wanting to study marine biology would find world-class facilities at Plymouth. If she wanted to study fashion design, Kingston offers one of the best courses in the world and if she wants to study astrophysics, both Cambridge and the LJMU Astrophysics Research Unit are both great options. The TEF provides a real opportunity to recognise and promote different kinds of excellence – let’s make sure it does.
Secondly, universities should engage in outreach that seeks to raise attainment in struggling schools rather than just recruit the best students. The universities in each region could work in partnership to make sure as many schools as possible are covered – and should undertake to inform students about the full range of university options in their region, rather than just recruiting students for themselves. If a disadvantaged student wants to study at a university outside their home region, that university should trust contextual data provided by the universities that carried out the outreach activity. HEFCE have just announced a new stream of funding for a geographically-focussed, national outreach programme. Let’s use this creatively.
Thirdly, retention and progression are as important as access. Many universities already provide considerable support for students who lack traditional academic skills – but more needs to be done to flex teaching and assessment styles for students who have come to university through a vocational route – and to recognize the additional skills this has provided. The new apprenticeships target – together with funding through the levy – should provide another route for students from all backgrounds to gain graduate-level skills. The government should push for a significant number of the new apprenticeships to be at degree level.
Finally, universities should work with employers, including those who would traditionally recruit from a limited number of universities, to showcase the skills of their students. Many companies now recognise that it makes business sense to have a workforce that reflects their client base. One of the big four accountancy firms has recently dropped its requirement for A-levels to seek talent from a broader range of graduates. It recognises the value of recruiting graduates who want to stay in the cities where they grew up rather than hop off to London as soon as they have gained experience.
The SMF report suggests that, on current trends, the Prime Minister will miss his target of doubling the rates of disadvantaged students entering higher education by 2020. Let’s do what it takes to turn this around.