Public opinion in this country has long been rooted in the importance of fair play and an implacable belief in the value of personal responsibility.
On crime, for example, public opinion remains clear on the need to properly punish criminals. On economic policy, work must be seen to “pay”. And – famously – it was the idea of taking back personal control that played such a decisive role in our decision to leave the European Union.
The same fundamental truth applies to education policy. One can appreciate why in the summer of 2020 someone sitting in DfE thought it was fair to use an algorithm to adjust teacher-assessed grades for A levels, given the (now very apparent) scope for rampant grade inflation without it. But they forgot that the British public was likely to abhor the idea that an individual’s success could be judged in this fashion.
Public First’s latest comprehensive new polling, probing public attitudes to levelling up, shows that this is also very evident in debates over access to higher education.
Levelling up admissions
We asked 2,000 members of the public to pick from a number of policy options for how universities and training might be used to “level up” local areas, and to select the three they most support. These were the results:
Our colleague Ed Dorrell has already picked out what this tells us about support for apprenticeships. But we also want to focus on how far down the priority list the two proposals are that relate specifically to university admissions: lower entry requirements for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and limiting the number of places available to private schools. Only 16 per cent and 11 per cent respectively of the public included these options in their top three.
These figures drop to 9 per cent in both cases when you look specifically at a politically vital demographic of working-class people who voted Conservative in 2019 and to leave the EU in 2016. These are, in effect, the voters the Labour party needs to win back. On the flip side, the figures rise to 14 per cent and 23 per cent respectively when you look specifically at Labour voters in 2019.
The message is therefore simple: the public – and in particular those who the levelling up agenda must surely hope to impress – strongly back meritocracy when it comes to university admissions. Conversely, existing Labour party voters are in a very different place.
The public wants future students to earn their university place – and be supported financially to access it – rather than be offered a “free pass” or an easier route. There is little public support for policy which gives pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds lower offers, or sets quotas to reduce the number of privately educated pupils. To the public, and even more so the demographic the two main parties will be fighting over at the next election, levelling up means more opportunity for all, not lowering the bar for some.
Investing in potential
The most obvious implication of these findings is a requirement for universities to build new routes into higher education which improve opportunities. Those currently asking questions about how they can respond to the levelling up agenda should look first to apprenticeships and retraining, which will also require universities to engage fully in shaping the lifelong learning agenda.
A second implication relates to Michelle Donelan’s recent demand that the sector does more to help students achieve their potential while they are in school. Our polling demonstrates a strong preference for helping future students do well, instead of lowering requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
To be clear, we do not think this means removing any context from the admissions process – taking into consideration a candidate’s background and experience will always be a core part of the university admissions process. But it does mean a move away from offering some students lower grade offers, and instead investing in the tools, resources, time and energy that helps make sure students are not held back from achieving the grades they deserve by their background.
This is hard. It will require money, time and expertise – and universities being forced to think a little bit more about what their purpose is and who they are here to try to help. But the fact is – whether they like it or not – public opinion doesn’t really leave them any other option.