This is a guest blog based on the speech Shakira Martin gave at HEPI/Advance HE’s House of Commons seminar on Widening Participation.
Widening participation in education and improving social mobility have been central issues of focus throughout my, now almost two year, presidency of the National Union of Students (NUS). Throughout this time I have witnessed vital steps be taken forward; the Office for Students shake up of access and participation and the improved sector commitment to tackling the the black attainment gap serve as just a couple of examples.
However, the fact of the matter remains that social mobility is at a standstill. We know that this is down to numerous complex factors relating to social inequality in Britain, as well as specific challenges which exist throughout our higher education sector. This is not a new problem. Student poverty is not a new problem and classed barriers to education are certainly not new. I believe that we can only truly understand this if we are willing to go back to basics, to re-learn the things that we may have forgotten. It means that we need to talk about class. We need to press the reset button and restart the debate about inequity in our education system.
When I talk about student poverty I am talking about the people across the UK who leave school at 16, or even sooner, to enter into a minimum wage job because they simply cannot afford to do anything else – or perhaps because they have been made to feel that they are not capable of anything else. I am talking about working class communities in the Welsh Valleys and the working class girl in Northern Ireland who falls pregnant and cannot afford the trip to England for an abortion. I am talking about the people who cannot attend university in Scotland, because although fees are free, rent definitely is not.
I believe that we are all capable of succeeding and thriving in education. We are all capable of achieving and even being socially mobile, but for some the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us. This is what we need to change, but it can’t be achieved by widening participation efforts alone. Instead we need to go back to basics and reconsider what we might have missed about what it means to be working class and recognise the extent of the barriers that this presents.
Last year I launched NUS’ Poverty Commission to put class back on the agenda, and to show what this really means when it comes to education and social mobility. Our diverse commissioners heard evidence from across the education system and beyond on the impact poverty has on people getting in and getting on in a post-16 education system not built for them. We found, unsurprisingly, that universities play a crucial role in shaping the social mobility agenda. More surprisingly, we found that there is a market in poverty – a sort of poverty premium – and our universities indirectly benefit from it. This manifests in multiple ways, including larger loan debts relating to the costs of studying and transport costs which arise from being last in the queue for private rented student accommodation. As such, the solutions need to come not only from our universities but from our national government, right down to our local communities.
What we need is greater investment in student support, with students able to expect to receive a minimum living income. We need maintenance grants, EMA and nursing bursaries and an apprenticeship minimum wage that’s at the level of a living wage. But it won’t be enough to increase student income alone, because doing so causes multiple generations to face increasingly unmanageable debts. How can we expect to improve social mobility when the money from the debts of the poorest students ends up back in the pockets of those already up at the top of the ladder? That is why we also need to see creative initiatives such as accommodation subsidies introduced for low-income students, private landlords halving rent on accommodation over the summer and discount cards for 50 per cent reductions on train fares and cheaper and better bus services. To make these dreams a reality we need the Government to step up and deliver for students by delivering greater investment in early years education and significant investment in IAG for students.
Over the last year, NUS has been working to take the Poverty Commission findings forward – it is the key piece of evidence we submitted to the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, and we will continue to lobby politicians and the sector at a national level for change. In addition, we are supporting students’ unions to campaign so we can knock down the barriers to getting in and getting on – whether related to transport, housing, course costs or employment.
Universities play an important role in making this happen too, by addressing student retention and success and to bring education into the lives of working class communities. In short we need universities to add to and work in dialogue with– rather than cure and gentrify – communities. Because hearing these stories and understanding the realities working class people face in our education system and in society is powerful. Failing to do so would make our universities complicit in failing prospective students shut out from HE and reinforcing the cycle of deprivation which we are seeing intensify in Britain.
As I embark on my final months at the helm of NUS and look to the future, I hope that we can get a grasp of what disadvantage really means in the context of our universities and in the everyday lives of current and prospective students. We need to continue our existing WP efforts but also develop a more meaningful understanding of deprivation, based on the stories of the people who know it best. Because universities cannot continue to benefit from this poverty premium, whilst realistically hoping to overcome the social mobility challenge.
In short – it’s time to knock this whole thing down and build it back again.