This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Maria Neophytou, Director of Public Affairs at Impetus.
2019 has been a year of high political drama, unmatched by substantive policy change. Brexit has dominated, with domestic departments caught in a holding pattern. The Augar commission was launched by the last Prime Minister to review post-18 education, but has barely been mentioned by the current one. Tuition fees may have resonated little in this election, but the issues Augar was set up to address have not gone away.
It is no surprise then, that as today’s figures from the Department for Education reveal, disadvantaged young people are still dramatically less likely to go to university than their better off peers. Indeed, today’s figures show that after three years with the access gap stuck at 17.7 percentage points, this year there has been a fall backwards, despite record proportions of disadvantaged young people making it to higher education.
And these figures only tell part of the story. As part of our Youth Jobs Gap research, Impetus has taken a deeper look at disadvantaged young people in higher education, using new longitudinal government data. We found that the story is not as simple as getting good enough qualifications at school. Even young people on free school meals who achieved five GCSE A*- Cs, including English and Maths are less likely to go to university or graduate than their similarly qualified but better off peers. Last week HEPI published a report looking at more selective universities, where the gaps are widest, finding that it would take 100 years to hit the latest official university targets.
What are the prospects of solving these issues in the 2020s? The optimistic take for 2020 is that with Brexit ‘done’, normal service will be resumed and domestic issues like education can once again come to the forefront. The less optimistic take is that the Conservative manifesto deliberately sidesteps making any commitments, other than some warm words on interest rates and a promise to consider the Augar review’s recommendations ‘carefully’. That sounds rather like a get-out clause for inaction. While the new government may well go full steam ahead with Brexit, the widening participation agenda is stuck in the slow lane.
The gap between children on free school meals and their peers is not inevitable. At Impetus, we work with our charity partners to transform the lives of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds by ensuring they get the right support to succeed. We are proud that our charity partners, IntoUniversity and The Access Project, work to overcome the main barriers that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face in accessing university. They focus on the things that matter: raising attainment, providing high quality advice and guidance and improving awareness of university options, which the evidence shows are the ways to make a difference.
Making sure that these charities reach the young people who need these interventions the most should be a key objective for the new government. In the first instance, this means protecting funding. Widening participation work is currently mostly funded through university access agreements – essentially, a top slice from tuition fees. Whatever the future higher education funding arrangements look like, we need to make sure this money is protected. Of course, the Office for Students also needs to make sure it is spent on what works, by holding universities to account for their progress against their targets.
The work of charities alone will not close the gap – policymakers have a role to play too. There are three steps that the government needs to take to speed up the painfully slow progress we are making on closing the university access gap.
Firstly, be wary of focussing too much on measures of financial return. The graduate premium is an important measure, but one of many things that need to be taken into consideration. In isolation, it suggests the maths graduate who opts to become a teacher rather than a city trader has had less return on their degree. And it disincentivises universities from taking on ‘risky’ students. Young people with borderline grades, young people with mental health issues, young people who are carers, even young people who plan to stay in their community rather than moving to a big city for more money. This clearly is not anyone’s intention, but it is a risk.
Secondly, we need to dial down the fear-mongering about tuition fees and student ‘debt’. Repayment of tuition fee loans is not debt in any meaningful sense, but the notion of accumulating debt is off-putting. Better to focus on the interest rate and maintenance support so that the funding system retains its progressive character and does not hold back disadvantaged students. Well informed students know that they will only pay back all their fees if they end up earning enough to do so, but are right to be concerned about getting adequate support for living costs while at university. Additional maintenance grants would make it easier for young people, particularly those without the benefit of parental support. This is something Impetus called for in response to the Augar review.
Finally, the government should look at what more can be done to support attainment in schools – because without the grades, university will remain an impossible dream for many. In our election manifesto we called for free tutoring for young people who fall behind in primary school. And you do not have to look much further than our partners the Fair Education Alliance and the Education Endowment Foundation for many more ideas for making sure disadvantaged young people achieve their full potential in school.
Every young person with the ability to go to university should have the opportunity to do so. Today’s figures remind us that the university access gap is just too wide to be ignored. In post-Brexit Britain, we will have to do all we can to equip all young people with the skills to succeed, no matter what their background.