Who gets squeezed out when places are restricted?

Omar Khan argues that unless we dramatically expand university places as demand increases, "levelling up" will prove harder than ever.

Listening to A levels students share their stories on the news over the last few weeks, I have been filled with mixed emotions.

On one hand, I was very disappointed that a cloud of uncertainty had been placed over their futures during already difficult circumstances.

Particularly saddening were the stories of students whose hopes of entering university had been seemingly dashed by an algorithm – some were to be first in their family to attend university. Others had been marked down based on the school’s historic academic performance.

Of course, efforts were made to avoid or minimise bias in this process. But the ultimate cause of the unfairness affecting disadvantaged students isn’t individual bias but deep-rooted inequality across society. Socio-economic inequalities are so entrenched in Britain that any decision method, algorithmic or otherwise, will further compound unfairness, without careful consideration and planning.

Looking up

But there are reasons to be cheerful. A record number of disadvantaged students have been accepted to university this year, and a record-breaking number admitted to the most selective universities.

While many of these disadvantaged and underrepresented students can now be proud of their grades and achievements following the government’s u turn, we need to ensure plans to manage capacity constraints do not further discriminate against them and future 18-year olds.

In a good first step, the universities minister has written to vice chancellors asking them to prioritise the admission of disadvantaged students where possible. There is no doubt universities have borne the brunt of all the chopping and changing in recent weeks. And they are working hard to do their best.

If we do not help these disadvantaged students – who are already over twice as likely not to attend university – we could risk undoing recent progress. We need to use this year’s unique circumstances to bring about sustainable policy settings and continue this progress in years to come.

This is particularly important as the capacity constraints faced by the sector this year are set to outlast the Covid-19 pandemic. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that 2020 marks the final dip in a recent decline in the 18-year-old population. From next year, the pool of potentially eligible 18-year olds wanting to apply for university will start to steadily expand. By 2030 that pool will turn into an ocean.

This increase could have severe consequences for equality gaps in the sector. If we assume that capacity remains unchanged and the eligible cohort increases, the proportion of the population who can attend will inevitably decrease. Which begs the question; which students will be accepted, and who will instead be left behind?

Who loses out?

In 2019, around 20 per cent of students from the most disadvantaged areas went to university, compared to 47 per cent in the least disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Whether it comes to decision by algorithm, or decision by predicted grades, the outcome is always the same when competition is tight, and places are restricted: those already advantaged have a head start in the race.

If higher education providers, constrained by capacity and funding, are forced to select from the expanding pool of prospective students, prior attainment will become even more important. We know that disadvantaged students on average have lower school attainment than their more advantaged peers. We need to put proper safeguards in place now to avoid reversing progress towards narrowing equality gaps.

Removing the temporary cap on overall student numbers and those studying certain subjects is a good start. As is providing additional teaching grant funding to increase capacity for high cost subjects. Introducing a way to build upon the existing use of contextual admissions could be another effective option.

Research shows that admitting students with lower A-level grades does not necessarily diminish their degree outcomes – a core concern for the government and the sector. However, providers may currently be put off from expanding contextual admissions due to links between tariff entry points and higher education league tables – and limitations surrounding individualised data to inform decisions at the point of admission. We need to think carefully about how to effectively embed more contextual admissions into the mix.

If we don’t use this opportunity to future-proof the system, to ensure more disadvantaged young people benefit from university and the economic and societal benefits of levelling-up, the last few weeks have taught us that our future leaders will have something to say about it.

Let’s hope in coming years their stories are positive ones – and that a levelled-up Britain will be a fairer place, where every young person can fulfil their aspirations.

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