Given the resignations of both Alan Milburn and Justine Greening, the Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 State Of The Nation report now feels like a document from a different political era, rather than just two months ago.
The report described a country where many people were trapped in social mobility ‘cold spots’, with a lack of educational opportunities and dire employment prospects. A few weeks later, the Department of Education’s own social mobility strategy contained a specific call for higher education providers to ‘spend their access and participation funding effectively, targeting low participation areas.’
Both identified place as a predominant factor in determining a young person’s life chances. This focus on place is welcome and long overdue and provides a useful frame for analysing the role that universities have and should aspire to play within their local regions.
The university role
Higher education institutions have a profound effect on their local communities. A quick look at local voting patterns illustrates the point – whether expressed in the yellow islands of Remain-voting university cities in a blue sea of Leave constituencies, or the swing to Labour in previously staunchly Conservative Canterbury attributed to the city’s large student population.
Universities affect the local economy and social character within their regions. Articles from KPMG and Brunel University describe how universities generate jobs and spending by students. HEPI’s recent survey analysed the contribution of international students on local economies, finding that they generate £1.28 billion in the East Midlands alone, a region identified as having particularly poor economic prospects. That is even before taking into account spending by the vastly larger number of UK students.
But economic growth can also damage community cohesion, for example by pushing up house prices – with prices in university towns rising by an average of 22% over three years. Having a large number of students can create divides between young people passing through for three years and locals with deeper roots.
If universities are responsible for such powerful effects, then it’s clear that they have a wider civic responsibility to their region. Student volunteering is a way universities have traditionally met this responsibility. A recent example is the University of West of England and University of Bristol encouraging students to participate in environmental sustainability projects to make the city a ‘green capital’.
One of the most important roles student volunteers can play in promoting social mobility locally is by inspiring and supporting others from their local community to enter higher education.
Through Brightside’s work with universities across the UK, we’ve seen the impact mentoring from a student a young person can relate to can have, both in accessing university and in developing the confidence and ‘sense of belonging’ students need to succeed while they’re there. This is particularly important for local students from poorer backgrounds, who are more likely to live at home, which can lead to a feeling of exclusion from the university ‘campus culture’, and are more likely to drop out. Many mentees become mentors themselves, further breaking down a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ when young people see that those from a similar background are flourishing in higher education.
Although there have been significant gains in widening participation, progress has been too slow and uneven, as outgoing Director for Fair Access Les Ebdon has recently noted. Disadvantaged students are disproportionately clustered in low and medium tariff institutions. Some of the most prestigious institutions, often located in regions with high levels of deprivation, are falling short of their HESA benchmarks for admitting students from low participation neighbourhoods. And as the Social Mobility Commission states, having a university on their doorstep is no guarantee of social mobility for young people, with just one in 60 disadvantaged young people from Bristol and Southampton going to a highly selective university.
So what’s going wrong? There are two related structural defects in widening participation policy and infrastructure. Despite over £833m being invested annually on widening participation, we still have nowhere near enough understanding of what programmes are achieving greatest impact. David Woolley from Nottingham Trent University is right to call for the Office for Students to establish a National Evidence Unit to remedy this gap.
The second problem is the lack of coordination and resource of outreach activity. Funding is currently channelled to the widening participation departments of individual universities, which means over 100 ill-co-ordinated funding streams across the country and the inevitable patchwork of resulting provision. Typically, areas to miss out are more remote rural and coastal areas, though as the latest POLAR4 maps from HEFCE show, there are pockets of low progression within and around university cities and towns.
The Social Mobility Commission recommends greater collaboration between universities, schools, businesses, and charities in their widening participation activity, and the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) which brings together universities into 29 regional consortia is a good step forward. Encouragingly, evaluation has been planned in from the beginning within NCOP.
What threatens to hamper the effectiveness of the NCOP programme though is insecurity about its longer-term status. It’s important that the Office for Students confirms the future of the NCOP programme after December 2018 as soon as possible, otherwise the considerable time and money spent establishing this place-based social mobility infrastructure in the last year will be wasted.
The focus on place is also being filtered through a number of different government initiatives, whether Department for Education Opportunity Areas, LEP initiatives and the regional careers hubs proposed in the recent government careers strategy. The NCOP programme provides the institutional means for universities to play a joined-up leadership role on local social mobility programmes, working closely with these other government programmes.
Taken together, these programmes represent a move towards the ‘opportunity ecosystem’, advocated by University Alliance, which includes deeper engagement with schools at one end, through to working with employers to boost the local economy at the other. Universities are powerful regional economic and community actors – and NCOP provides the means for them to take the lead and redraw the map on social mobility.