The Bridge Group’s latest report exposes the way that socio-economic and geographical factors collide to increase the barriers to entering higher education faced by those who experience financial hardship.
This aspect of social inequality is under-explored and has been largely overlooked in government policy, especially since the closure of the Commission for Rural Communities in 2012. There is no longer a national body responsible for voicing the needs of rural communities and assessing the impact of policies and interventions in rural areas to ensure equitable outcomes (otherwise known as ‘rural proofing’). This is particularly significant given the consistent pattern of weaker average attainment amongst pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds living in rural areas, compared to their urban peers.
As long as attainment remains the key determinant of participation in higher education, this issue demands a strategic government response. Our recommendations to reverse this trend and direct resources to individuals in need of additional support include: increasing funding for pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds living in isolated areas; and giving a proportion of central widening participation funds directly to secondary schools to embed activity in the curriculum and across the life of the school.
Young people in remote areas are neglected by interventions more focused on urban areas where the concentration of economic deprivation is higher. Area-based initiatives, like the London Challenge, have channelled funding to schools with large populations of pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Consequently, insufficient attention has been given to pupils from these backgrounds attending schools in more rural and remote areas that are often simplistically conceived as affluent places.
The metrics deployed to target investment and outreach activity typically fail to recognise the presence of poverty in affluent areas and the dispersal of poverty across remote communities. We propose reforms to address this imbalance in the distribution of resources and build a more nuanced regard for place. For policymakers across sectors, increased attention should be given to “rural proofing” policy and interventions to reduce geographical educational equality.
A stronger focus on place
In the context of higher education, there needs to be a greater emphasis on reporting on where widening participation outreach activity takes place and where the learners live who engage in it. We would then have a stronger evidence base regarding the geographical distribution of widening participation activity and the relative rurality of those who benefit from it. Additionally, there is no imperative for higher education institutions to consider pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds in remote areas; in fact, the increased cost of outreach activity in such remote areas is often a significant obstacle.
A joined-up, collaborative and concerted approach is required to tackle the scale of geographical inequality that we have observed.
The policy focus on ‘fair access’ and ‘widening access’ has garnered far more attention in the press than more material matters regarding physical access to educational opportunities and the distribution of resources across the further and higher education sectors. For many young people, the decision-making process around participation in higher education is made all the more complicated (for financial, personal, and cultural reasons) because of the lack of choice and the pressure to leave home.
The higher education institution as place maker
The prevailing social mobility narrative sees ‘moving on’ as a prerequisite for ‘moving up’. This involves treating people as though they are ‘a-spatial’ whilst assuming a narrow, economic idea of mobility. The economic domination of London and large urban centres has meant that the greatest career rewards, in economic terms, are received by those who are mobile and willing to move to large, ‘escalator’ cities. This yoking of social mobility with geographical mobility has a negative impact on those who have a strong attachment to place and choose to live in more remote areas.
Additionally, the preoccupation with earnings as a measure of graduate outcomes has a negative effect on higher education institutions at a distance from London and large urban centres where the wage premium is far lower. It creates a disincentive for institutions to commit to improving graduate retention and local job creation. We call for metrics used in the TEF to change to recognise the influence of geographical context. Our report shares case studies from the Universities of Lincoln, Coventry (Scarborough), and Exeter that demonstrate the valuable role of institutions in generating graduate employment opportunities in remote places and stemming the ‘brain drain’. This work deserves greater recognition in assessment and ranking exercises.
The importance of local higher education for social equality
Danny Dorling forcefully makes the claim for local higher education provision in his foreword to our report, and our findings support that. To achieve greater social and geographical equality, we need to challenge the structures underpinning our steeply hierarchical higher education system and ensure a fairer distribution of resources across the sector to enable all participants (regardless of background, attainment, or levels of geographical mobility) to receive a high quality education and, importantly, strong graduate outcomes.
For higher education institutions, this will be a way to diversify their student community by social background and ability. Tim Blackman, Tom Sperlinger, and others have articulated some of the mechanisms for achieving this change and our report complements their thinking by providing a series of very practical steps for all sectors to play a part in securing a more equal educational landscape.
The starting point for all sectors is improved measuring and monitoring with regard to place so we can better appreciate the way that it influences progression and determines graduate outcomes. Place matters and it should inform our understanding of the dynamics of inequality.