Whatever happened to social mobility?

The Westminster government loves to trumpet improvements in access to higher education since it’s been in power.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Universities minister Robert Halfon was at it just the other day in the Westminster Hall cost of living and students debate:

Actually, the figures show that disadvantaged students are going to university in record numbers. Not only that, but they are about 73% more likely to go to university than they were in 2010.

That is, of course, the sort of pride that requires him to stick his fingers in his ears and shut his eyes when anyone tries to point out what a miserable experience they might be having these days having got in.

On the base point, though, he’s right to say that disadvantaged students are more likely to get in – this week’s end of clearing results, for example, show that the entry rate for POLAR1 England 18 year-olds has gone from 14.3 per cent at the end of Clearing in 2012 to 23.1 per cent this year.

The problem is that the entry rate has been climbing for POLAR 5 too, at roughly the same rate – in this case from 41.9 per cent to 50 per cent this year. In other words, the percentage points gap hasn’t shifted at all – in fact, at this stage in the cycle, the acceptance rate gap between POLAR1 and POLAR5 has been stuck at 27pp for a decade.

It all ought to be pretty embarrassing for the Office for Students (OfS) – which in theory has been holding universities’ feet to the fire over access since it took over the function from OFFA in 2018. At the time it had a stated ambition to eliminate the POLAR1/-5 gap over 20 years – but when confronted between two scenarios that were obviously unpalatable for ministers and the press, quietly dropped the measure altogether:

OfS might want to point to the POLAR1 figure on its own, or ask us to take into account the pandemic and cost of living crisis – but it is gaps that it is also obsessed over, and those contextual excuses are also ones that it doesn’t really let providers use either.

Bottom line is that whatever else has been going on, there’s no sign of social mobility improving – no wonder former Social Mobility commissioner Sammy Wright is in Schools Week this week arguing that…

…for all the high-flown rhetoric, no one in government cares enough to act.

The gap, accompanied by overall increases in participation, would actually present a bit of a problem for the Conservatives if there was a scintilla of a chance that they’d be in power after the next election. The current strategy, which seems to be about pricing the poor out of HE via maintenance meanness would make the gap bigger – given they’re unlikely to be aggressively targeting their “too many people in HE” stuff at POLAR5 postcodes.

But on the assumption that Labour assumes power over the next year or so, that OfS choice between Scenario 1 and 2 will be one it does have to face – and given Scenario 1 would ruin Starmer’s centrist appeal and Scenario 2 would be hugely expensive, it’s hard to hold out much hope that educational opportunity will become fairer under the alternative any time soon.

Scotland’s UCAS figures exclude a good chunk of FE in HE articulation, but things are even worse in Wales, by the way – the gap there has grown from 27pp in 2014 to 32pp this year, which pretty much renders HEFCW’s fee and access plan regime a social mobility failure, too.

At least Northern Ireland is moving in the right direction, albeit from the worst starting point – its 18-year-old end of clearing POLAR1-5 acceptance gap has gone from 34pp to 30pp this year.

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