Higher education and the government response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

People say we won’t achieve equality until we decolonise this, tear down that and put our entire history and every person of “privilege” in the dock for crimes of commission and omission.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

And we won’t achieve greater equality if we fall for the narrative that this country and its institutions are fundamentally racist, that the lack of opportunity experienced by people from ethnic minorities is all due to racial prejudice.

Those are the words of equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, writing in the Mail today to introduce the government’s official response to Tony “not going to get an honorary degree” Sewell’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The two messages seem to be – don’t blame white people! And don’t suggest that to make things better that some white people will have to miss out!

That honorary degree issue has been in the papers providing a backdrop to the publication of the “Inclusive Britain” strategy all week. The University of Nottingham had decided to offer Sewell an honorary degree in late 2019, but in December it told him the offer had been withdrawn because he had become the “subject of political controversy” – news that has mysteriously only appeared this week.

The university said it has strict criteria governing the award of honorary degrees that “preclude us from awarding them to figures who become the subject of political controversy”. Sewell responded by reframing the withdrawal justification around offence, telling the Mail:

…they didn’t want to offend the students at an award ceremony. How can you offend students with a report which says the equalities watchdog should have more power, that stop and search should be improved and that we need to get more people from ethnic minorities into university?”

Referencing disgraced entertainers R Kelly and Bill Cosby, Sewell continued:

These are the type of people you decide to withdraw honours from. But they [the university] have acted like cowards, subject to lobbying groups. I thought the work of a university was to deal with complex issues? [But] universities in England are like the Soviet Union. There is no free speech.”

That would have been a fun speech at the graduation ceremony.

On the actual government response to the commission, you may recall that we concluded that the commission’s content on higher education was hopelessly basic and offensively selective. And so if for example, the commission didn’t really notice the yawning difference in the proportions of black, Asian and minority ethnic students awarded a good (first or 2:1) undergraduate degree when compared to white students, that means the response strategy doesn’t have to generate or endorse any actions to close that gap.

It also means you can sidestep inconvenient facts, like the fact that the data published since the Sewell commission showing that the black awarding gap is now even worse than when the commission report was published.

That’s not to say that the commission was silent on the sector. It recommended that the Department for Education work with partners to explore how “submission dates for higher education institutions, and dates for GCSE and A level results, can be adjusted” noting that Gavin Williamson has announced plans to review the university admissions system and a potential move to post qualification admissions in November 2020. Today’s official response omits to mention that DfE has dropped PQA altogether.

The one major finding in the original report on higher education was the puzzle of high recruitment rates but poor outcomes, which it put down to students being in the wrong universities:

So, although Black students are progressing to university at healthy rates, they tend to be clustered in the lower tariff institutions as shown in the graph below. Likewise, although Asian students have much larger rates of progression to higher education than both White British and Black students, many are clustered in mid-tier universities.

And that generated a recommendation on universities intervening in schools:

We recommend stronger guidance is issued by the Office for Students (OfS) to higher education institutions on funding outreach programmes and placing university outreach staff in schools to help reduce disparities in applications at an earlier stage. Funding should be informed by evidence-led practice and targeted at the 8 elements of good careers support to ensure that more children are able to apply to high-tariff institutions. This funding should be evaluated and monitored to assess whether it is having an impact on application rates.

If guidance from OfS does not lead to strengthened funding for such initiatives, then OfS should look to regulatory or legal changes to ensure improved access and participation to higher education institutions.

When it came to non-white students dominating “lower tier” universities, the commission couldn’t ever really make its mind up on whether the solution was to improve their outcomes or instead get them to avoid university in the first place:

A thriving university sector is vital for this country and should be even more open to those with the relevant abilities and aptitudes from all backgrounds. But young people appear to be over-investing in university degrees that are not leading to the high status professional jobs they’ve been led to expect.

Today’s response notes that “ethnic minority students have higher transition rates to higher education” but “drop out more often than white majority group students, despite reporting higher aspirations at age 14”. To square that circle, the solution is to “clamp down on low-quality courses in higher education” – because these courses “hurt people from disadvantaged backgrounds the most” the Office for Students will “set minimum acceptable standards for student outcomes”.

The message seems to be – it’s all very well that these students from ethnic minorities are going to university, but what a waste of their time! Look at all the debt they’re in that they’re not paying back to us! They’d be better off doing things with their hands than their heads.

What we don’t get is any analysis of what would happen to non-white parrticipation rates and subsequent outcomes if the government had its way and closed all of the “low-value” provision and made universities doing the heavy lifting on widening access unviable.

And naturally, much of this is their fault for making the wrong choices:

It is important to provide transparent ways for parents and young people to understand what the implications are for enrolling on a certain degree at a certain institution and to be able to compare options, including non-university routes to higher level qualifications. They can nudge them in a direction to make a more informed choice about their future and to enhance their job prospects.

What’s fairly surreal is that what we do get is another new way for consumer signalling and league tables to solve social justice issues. In the past we’ve had everything from Sam Gyimah’s app competition to Michelle Donelan’s TEF-labelling as solutions to the problem, and here instead of OfS and its market choice and information role being charged with fixing things, the Social Mobility Commission will be asked to remix LEO data as follows:

The Social Mobility Commission will seek to improve the information available to parents and students about the labour market value of qualifications and, where possible, their potential impact on social mobility. This will help prospective students – and particularly those from more deprived backgrounds – to choose the right course for them and to boost their employment prospects. It will also incentivise universities and other providers to improve or withdraw those courses that do not deliver genuinely improved opportunities.”

But hold on. If only some courses and universities lead to decent outcomes, doesn’t that mean…

Well no. Obviously you can’t say that it will be important for elite universities to take proportionately less white students in the future. The apparent focus will be to show applicants from ethnic minorities that the courses they can’t get into are the ones that lead to the big bucks so they pick something else instead.

You wouldn’t make this up.

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