How will Labour define opportunity?

The next government’s approach to widening access will be key to the future of higher education itself, says Graeme Atherton

Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), and Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London

The general election campaign has featured little on higher education. It also hasn’t shed much light yet on how either of the main parties would address inequality or – in particular for Labour – “opportunity”.

How Labour is to do this, if it wins, matters not only for the millions who suffer from the UK being one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, but for higher education as well.

Decline in interest

The difficulties that higher education overall has experienced with the current government over recent years mirror the decline in interest shown in widening access to it. Over a three year period we went from Theresa May speaking about the need to close the gap in higher education participation between working class boys and the rest in her first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of Number 10 to then higher education minister Michelle Donelan telling our first NEON event of the pandemic that widening access work had been letting people down for 16 years.

Unfortunately, while Minister Donelan’s counterpart on the Labour benches since then has been a strong supporter over the past 4 years, widening access work does not occupy the importance in their proposed policies that it once did.

Labour’s otherwise strong Council for Skills Advisors report of 2022 said nothing about the importance of widening access as leading to greater opportunity. It receives a cursory mention in the Breaking down the barriers to opportunity document of 2023 which outlined the content of the party’s “opportunity mission” – but compared to the focus on skills there is little detail.

At present, widening access appears a potential casualty of Labour’s desire to capture the ground that the Conservatives have attempted to mark out as their own – technical and vocational skills – as well as the party’s attempts to avoid talking about what it will do about tuition fees.

Paying attention to social mobility

Whether Labour wins next month or if the Conservatives stage what at the moment appears an unlikely comeback, there will be a need to do something about how inequality and opportunity is tackled.

Social mobility, which for most of the 2010s enjoyed that exalted status of being a cross-party priority has fallen away badly from political view. Up to Corbyn and Johnson each party leader since Blair spoke of the importance of social mobility – but their successors have shown little real interest in the idea.

The Commission for Social Mobility, which has produced excellent research on inequality since being set up by Alan Milburn in 2010, has had a turbulent time over recent years and will be looking for reassurance about its future from the next government.

The future of levelling up looks even more uncertain than social mobility. The Prime Minister promised some more money for towns in the election campaign – while at the same time raiding the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to support his national service for young people policy. As with social mobility, Labour has said little on levelling up and it is highly unlikely this will be the frame by which it looks to address inequality if elected. Since 2023 it has no longer had a shadow minister with levelling up in their title.

Returning widening access to higher education – however inequality and opportunity is defined – after the election is vital. Despite the progress made over the last 20 years, especially where reducing regional differences in participation are concerned, huge gaps between different groups remain. Our research at NEON released earlier this year showed that in 43 areas of the country less than 20 per cent of young people from free school meals (FSM) backgrounds are going to higher education, compared to 49 per cent of non-FSM young people nationally.

The central offer

And as important as showing that inequality still exists is showing the benefits of higher education to those experiencing its impact. Staying with those who have been in receipt of free school meals, half earned £17,000 or less by age 30 years. For those in receipt of free school meals with a degree they are earning on average over 50 per cent more than this five years after graduation – usually before 30.

The economic case for widening access is clear, but for higher education there is also a political one that is equally compelling. It is no coincidence that when government has looked on higher education more favourably over the last 20 years, it has been as part of the story of addressing inequality.

When that link between higher education, inequality and opportunity started to fray, the policy environment started to toughen. It needs to be remade.

If higher education is to lever in the policy support it needs then it has to really show its public benefit in terms of research, as an economic anchor in many communities, and equally importantly as a route to enable those from low-income communities to progress in their lives. Playing a part in addressing inequality is no longer a nice thing to do for universities if they can afford to do it, or an exercise to keep the Office for Students happy. If they want to play their full part in how the next government attempts to address the myriad of challenges this government faces, widening access has to be central to the university offer.

Whoever wins the next election will need to tell a new story about inequality. For the sake of those who bear the brunt of inequality and for universities, widening access to higher education must be part of it.

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