This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Roger Brown, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Policy and former Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University.

HEPI’s recent report Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation (HEPI Report 106) is a valuable reminder of how much still has to be done to make participation fairer. The report, produced in association with the charity Brightside, has some valuable perceptions about the obstacles to more balanced participation, and some interesting ideas about removing them. But it takes too little account of the context in which schools and colleges and universities now have to operate. This means, unfortunately, that much of this effort will prove to be nugatory. This note explains why.

It is well established that socioeconomic context is by far the most important factor in school performance. Britain scores nearly the highest amongst all the OECD countries in the extent to which a school’s performance is determined by its social intake – 77% compared with an OECD average of 55%. Britain is also distinguished by the huge range of school types – in itself a major barrier to progress – and by the proliferation of school owners and sponsors. Britain has always had a hierarchical, class-based school system, with the private schools catering for students from wealthy (these days, very wealthy) middle class homes at the top and the state secondary moderns educating students from the poorer working class at the bottom.

But this has been exacerbated by the policies of competition and choice that have been espoused by governments of all parties since the late 80s, the mostly negative effects of which have been well captured in Fiona Millar’s just published book The Best for My Child: Did the schools market deliver? (John Catt Educational Ltd). Damien Hinds’ announcement of a further expansion of grammar provision – in spite of all the evidence of the damage that selective schools do to social mobility, and at a time when most state schools are struggling financially – is only the latest manifestation of these policies. Is there anyone outside the Government who thinks this a good idea?

Turning to higher education, another recent HEPI report Benchmarking widening participation: how should we measure and report progress? (HEPI Policy Note 6) finds that even with the progress that has been made on participation, some of the most prestigious universities have higher levels of inequality – as indicated by the proportions of students from less advantaged areas – than some of the most unequal advanced countries, such as the US. Because it inevitably leads to greater stratification, increased marketisation – through full-cost fees, the removal of the numbers cap and the lowering of market entry barriers – is likely to increase both the economic and the social distance between the most favoured institutions and the rest. Britain, and especially England, looks increasingly like a model whereby universities are distinguished and classified as much by their social as by their educational profiles (insofar as these can be separated), and where a major consideration for purchasers is/are the personal (for which, read ‘social’) characteristics of the other customers (as is already the case with the private schools).

Marketisation in turn represents the application to higher education of the Neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, tax and welfare reductions, and austerity that have been applied in many Western countries since the 80s. As well as increasing stratification, marketisation will reduce diversity (as institutions, subjects and modes that cannot command market support disappear); lower innovation (more prestigious institutions have no incentive to innovate, less prestigious ones gain no reward for doing so); increase the internal separation of activities, structures and personnel; increase the risks to quality as self-regulation gives way to regulation by the market (league tables, anyone?); divert resources away from teaching and research into things like marketing and branding, attention-grabbing buildings, etc; mean greater instability and short-termism (just as in the corporate sector); and weaken the universities’ ability to act as the conscience of society as they struggle to combine this role with increased commercialisation. Above all, marketisation fuels and exacerbates the ‘academic arms race’ that wastes so much time and energy in the pursuit of mostly chimerical goals (the supply of prestige is limited so that usually one institution can only gain a better position if another makes way).

In my recent book The Inequality Crisis: What are the facts and what we can do about it (Policy Press), I discuss the causes of the rising inequality of incomes and wealth in the West. I note that while the underlying drivers are such developments as globalisation, computerisation (‘skill-biased technological change’) and financialisation, the countries with the greatest levels of inequality – the US, the UK, Australia – are those where the Neoliberal project of marketisation has proceeded furthest. I am afraid that until this project is halted the drive for a fairer education system, and the worthy proposals in the HEPI report, will continue to be hard going for all concerned.