HEPI is today publishing The Comprehensive University (Occasional Paper 17) by Professor Tim Blackman, the Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University. The report argues the comprehensive ideal is the best way to fix how the UK’s class-based university system is holding back social mobility.

The paper’s recommendations include:

  1. measures to ‘desegregate’ and diversify universities, including quotas for the proportion of student places that can be subject to academic selection;
  2. targets for universities to re-balance their skewed social class intakes, driven by levies on the most selective universities; and
  3. a funding system that reflects the benefits of higher education to both the individual student and wider society.

Professor Blackman said:

The UK’s higher education system is said to be one of the best in the world, but it is failing to make the contributions to tackling social inequality and poor economic productivity that our universities could make if regulated in a different way. The root of these problems is academic selection, which has created a sector based on social class advantages rather than recruitment and teaching practices that equalise opportunities.

The narrative of “leading” and “top” universities has marginalised the transformational potential of higher education, which lies in adopting comprehensive principles. Mixing students of different backgrounds and abilities and teaching them together would force more universities to develop their teaching expertise, but there are many added benefits.

Evidence shows that less selection and greater diversity would create a better learning environment for all students, and it is much the best and most cost-effective way to widen access.

In a Foreword to the report, Matthew Taylor (a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and author of the recent report Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices), says:

Tim Blackman’s case for comprehensive universities is radical and will no doubt ruffle feathers but it is also based on strong argument and powerful research. I was particularly struck by the evidence he presents on the efficacy of mixed ability teaching in American higher education, evidence which reinforces similar findings in schools.

Forced to choose between ploughing more funds into schemes that do not deliver value for money or a relatively simple regulatory change that is guaranteed to shift the dial, my policy wonk brain plumps for the latter.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

This is one of the most thought-provoking papers ever published on UK higher education. It exposes how, as a country, we have embraced comprehensive principles for schooling but rejected them for higher education.

If we want to make a step change in social mobility, it makes sense to stand back and look at the big issues afresh – including our very selective university entrance system.

Many people will balk at the radical policy proposals here, but everyone who cares about the impact higher education has on individual people’s lives and on society in general should engage with these arguments.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection by Professor Tim Blackman is being published as part of HEPI’s Occasional Paper series, which look at old issues in bold new ways, underscored by evidence from the UK and elsewhere. It is written by the author in a personal capacity.
  2. Observations in the report include:
  • ‘A good hospital, for example, is surely one where its clinicians cure illnesses better than another hospital, not one where the patients are the most healthy when they are admitted.’ (Page 12)
  • ‘21 per cent of entrants in 2014/15 with one class background would have to move to another institution to be distributed proportionately the same across the sector as entrants from the other class background.’ (Page 28)
  • ‘We seem to be moving to a situation where the Department for Education is a marketing department for the most selective universities.’ (Page 34)
  • ‘attributes such as age, gender, class and ethnic identity have important influences on our ways of seeing and thinking. … They are resources for co-creating higher education.’ (Page 39, page 41)
  • ‘In general, school precedents such as quotas, lotteries, catchment areas and feeder schools present interesting possibilities for higher education.’ (Page 48)
  • ‘the earnings benefit for graduates compared to non-graduates for those from poorer families is about double that for graduates from richer families, so any reduction in university places is likely to make the sector’s social mobility performance even worse.’ (Page 54)