It’s an unlikely thought experiment, I’d admit – but what policies would a government that was completely opposed to any form of “levelling up” have?
For me, a determination to keep people without a traditional pattern of compulsory education attainment away from university level education would be key. We know that higher education leads to a better quality of life (including, but not limited to, higher lifetime earnings in most cases), and we know that a higher proportion of graduates in an area is linked to economic and social improvements felt more generally by that area.
We also know that people from deprived backgrounds are less likely to perform well in traditional academic examinations like GCSE and A levels. This is not due to a lack of potential or a lack of talent – it is due to competing time and financial pressures, domestic and social instability, and the absence of a culture where young people are expected to do well academically.
Looking at constituency level data there is a very slight correlation between the proportion of the working age population who hold no qualifications and the number of postcode areas in POLAR4 quintiles 1 and 2 (the bottom 40 per cent of areas for young people attending higher education).
And we can see a similar loose trend suggesting that constituencies where more people have no qualifications are also those where more people are claiming universal credit.
It remains the case that a plurality of parents want their children to attend university. And the government’s own logic of skills provision reform is a belated recognition that people need access to education throughout their lives, and it seems reasonable to suggest that – as people undertake more education over a lifetime – new education is more likely to be at a higher education level as you get older.
All that said, our imaginary government which is ideologically opposed to levelling up would have to work hard to come up with a policy proposal more effective than limiting higher education participation for people without GCSEs. It targets areas of high unemployment and low paid work as precisely as it is possible to do.
But there’s a kicker. You might think that “red wall” seats – small towns and coastal constituencies in the north – would be most likely to see low participation in HE and have larger proportions of residents with no qualifications. And you’d see a fair few of these – Middlesbrough, Wallsall, Batley.
The biggest losers from such a policy would be deprived areas around Birmingham and Sheffield. Exactly the kind of seat you might expect the Conservative party to be trying to win.