There’s quite a bit of chatter here at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester about the Government’s commitment to double the proportion of people from the least well-off socio-economic groups that make it to higher education. Joy Carter, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester, mentioned it, for example, at the Bright Blue / University Alliance / GuildHE fringe event earlier this evening.
In general, however, there has not been enough discussion of this commitment. There are three particularly interesting things about it.
- It secured zero (and I do mean zero) press coverage when it was first announced, by the Prime Minister in the midst of the 2015 election campaign as part of a five-point guarantee for young people. Buried away in the Notes for Editors of a press release dated 30 April 2015, it said: ‘The Prime Minister has set out a goal to continue the proportionate increase of disadvantaged young people going to university – so that by 2020, the most disadvantaged young people will proportionately be twice as likely to enter higher education than they were under Labour, up to 28% in 2020 from under 13.6% in 2009 and 18.2% in 2014. Applications from this group have reached a record high in 2015, with the latest data showing a 21% application rate.’ (See the BBC coverage of the launch here, which ignores the higher education commitment.) While it apparently secured no coverage during the election campaign, the commitment was repeated after the election, for example in Jo Johnson’s first major speech as Minister for Universities and Science on 1st July 2015.
- The commitment is bold, there is no doubt about it. It is also a clear target from a party that has eschewed higher education targets, such as Tony Blair’s 50% target, in recent times (although Conservative Ministers in earlier Governments have also had targets so perhaps they only oppose them when they are out of office). Indeed, it is so bold that it is fair to ask how the change will be achieved, given the forthcoming abolition of maintenance grants, which will mean the poorest students emerge from higher education with the largest debts, the recent decline in part-time study and the big expansion of apprenticeships. Ministers mighty fairly respond that there are new policies, such as the removal of student numbers and the Teaching Excellence Framework, that are likely to drive the numbers in the right direction.
- And yet… Even if the Prime Minister’s target is achieved, the proportion of people from poorer backgrounds in higher education will remain much lower than it is for richer households. Even if the target is achieved, those with the richest backgrounds will remain much more likely to reach higher education than those with less well-off backgrounds. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), for example: ‘Young people in the most disadvantaged areas would need to treble their participation rate in order to match the rate of those from the most advantaged areas.’ Even a doubling will leave a big gap between the richest and the poorest even before a further rise in participation among richer groups is accounted for.
In 2013 David Willetts, another speaker at tonight’s fringe, calculated that: ‘If everyone had the entry rate of the highest quintile, the numbers entering higher education would be much higher: 570,000 in 2011–12 instead of the actual figure of 368,000.’
Whatever else, all this puts the absurd prediction of the Office for Budget Responsibility that, in the last year of the current Parliament, there will be a mere 1,000 extra students in perspective.