Opportunity knocks: we must recognise talent wherever it is found

Following SMF research which shows the PM will miss his target of doubling the rates of disadvantaged students entering HE by 2020, Maddalaine Ansell argues that it's time to turn the issue around.

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.

3 responses to “Opportunity knocks: we must recognise talent wherever it is found

  1. It’s always good to hear sentiments of this sort. But I fear that despite being well-meaning, these are naive comments.

    For a start, it is almost impossible to wish away the hierarchy of universities. Good luck with explaining the local and discipline-specific expertise of the University of Plymouth to potential Chinese students.

    Second, I thought it had been established that by the time you get to university, it’s already too late. We cannot expect our universities to be the driver of wholesale social mobility.

    Third, the same people who draw up the policies are the same people who benefit from them – much of the above is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas (for their kids).

    I see education as I’ve understood welfare for some time now: getting a better idea of where the state resources are spent needs more spending of state resources. And that might be a long time in the coming.

  2. Unfortunately the English and Scottish systems (in vastly different ways) maintain this lack of meritocracy. Little pressure is put on “elite” institutions to widen the focus of recruitment or to inspire students outside of their usual recruitment population. While it is true that low participation areas cannot be fixed universities alone there is far more we can do to work as partners to encourage at a far earlier stage and so be part of the solution rather than washing our hands of the problem

  3. I agree wholeheartedly; I have more than 20 years experience in the private sector and have a Masters Degree. I am passionate about sharing my experience and mentoring others (I have benefited tremendously from gracious mentors). It is nigh impossible to find an academic institution that will contemplate your application if you have not been in academia and worked your way up the ranks and/or studying/have a phd. The future lies in apprenticeships and mentoring. A re-think is necessary.

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