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WEEKEND READING: Degrees of mobility: access, participation, and the ‘levelling up’ agenda

  • 7 November 2020
  • By Graeme Atherton & Peter John

This blog was written by Dr Graeme Atherton, Director, National Education Opportunities Network and Professor Peter John CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of West London. Earlier this year, Graeme and Peter wrote a piece in response to Michelle Donelan’s comments about social mobility in higher education.

It is hard to pin down the point at which significant members of the current Government fell out of love with higher education. It was certainly before the Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, announced that the 50 per cent participation target was being abolished on the 1 July. A new orthodoxy that seems to be emerging is that our future economy and society is best served by having fewer students at university. There was, of course, a brief interruption to this narrative when the A-Levels algorithm fiasco hit. Suddenly, universities were needed to mop up the disgruntled students who felt let down by a policy that initially saw 36 per cent of entries given a lower grade than predicted. Independent schools were mostly untouched as previous years’ grades protected them from most anomalies. The sense of unfairness, however, made many in the Government pause, as accusations of elitism clashed with the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda.

However, while higher education may not occupy the place in the heart of the Government which it once did, where the public is concerned, there may be a deeper affection than many first thought. The recent UPP Foundation report showed that a majority of those aged between 18 and 24 who are non-graduates would now consider doing a degree. The UPP Foundation report was closely followed by work from Policy Exchange that showed the majority of people think that university expansion has been good for the country. The proposed abolition of the 50 per cent target also led to a renewed debate about how many young people should progress to higher education, including on the HEPI blog with some in the sector calling for a new higher participation target – perhaps more than 50%. Also, given the manifesto commitment to ‘level up’, we feel the time is right for a re-consideration of current Government thinking on participation in higher education, especially as the post-COVID economic impact begins to hit home.

An economic imperative

The Government’s move away from the 50 per cent target centred on evidence regarding the increasing variance in the economic returns of undergraduate study in the UK especially in terms of graduate unemployment and under-employment. These outcomes-based data fuelled further concerns about the quality of some degrees and the sorts of employment gained after graduation. These anxieties, often driven by examples of so called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, have been around for some time and have been added to by the long-term economic burden and the high levels of likely fee loan write-off. These concerns have re-energised the narrative at the heart of government that higher education needs to be re-structured and the emphasis placed instead on further education and the need for intermediate technical skills. An argument made clear in the Minister for Universities’s speech at the National Educational Opportunities Network conference in early July which we discussed in a previous HEPI blog.

However, the evidence shows that both higher education and further education are interdependent, particularly when the prospects for those with fewer or lower level qualifications are rapidly deteriorating. In addition, across Europe, including the UK, it is estimated that almost 70 per cent of jobs could be displaced due to automation in the wholesale and retail sector alone. In fact, almost 80 per cent of jobs at risk are held by people who do not have a tertiary qualification and the most affected sectors tend to have a significantly lower share of employees with a tertiary credential. Further work by McKinsey suggests that more than 10 million UK workers could be under-skilled in leadership and management, while a similar number could lack skills in decision making and advanced communications. The same research also estimates that STEM-related occupations, business and legal professional roles, could grow by more than 20 per cent while creative and arts management roles could increase by more than 30 per cent by the early 2030s. However, focusing on future workforce requirements does not mean being oblivious to the short- and medium-term needs of young people: periods of youth unemployment can lead to a higher likelihood of ‘scarring’ in later life in terms of lower pay, higher unemployment and reduced life chances. And, more worryingly, to what Case and Deaton (2020) looking at call ‘Deaths of Despair’ where those outside the labour market in the USA are becoming victim of suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism.

Nor does increasing higher education participation to underpin future post COVID economic growth and avoid unnecessary unemployment mean abandoning the present focus on strengthening intermediate skills at Level 4/5. Only just under 30% of young people aged 18 are actually in higher education. Looking at 18-24 year olds overall, there are also nearly 15% of this group who are unemployed and 40% are not qualified to Level 3. It would be more productive and realistic to make the young people who have fewer qualifications the target for Level 4/5 progression rather than see any such expansion of places over the next 5 years taken by those who are likely to have stronger qualifications and could have progressed to HE.

The role of demography

The excellent report released by HEPI in October summed up the potential impact of increasing numbers of 18-year olds if the higher education participation rate continues to rise forecasting that by 2035 over 350,000 additional student places will be required. In the shorter term, an additional 20 per cent of 18-year olds are forecast to require places by 2025 compared to current demand. This projected increase is, however, highly differentiated geographically with the increase in London five times that of the North East for example. In London, this demographic surge is being driven by non-white ethnic groups. These groups already have the highest rates of higher education progression. In addition, London already has the highest higher education participation rate of any region and the area with the second highest growth and participation rate of 18-year-olds is the adjacent South East. It appears then, that demography will have an impact on higher education participation over this decade but limiting an increase in participation, as the Minister maintained, may be harder politically and practically than embracing growth. Convincing many young people and especially their families in London and the South East, that higher education is not a good option for them will be troublesome. Also, constraining opportunity and participation for many in the regions while allowing unfettered growth in London and the South might show ‘levelling up’ to be a pretence. Perhaps there is a third way, where higher education is seen as part of the solution not the problem.

‘Levelling up’ and higher education participation

Another high-quality report released this week by the UPP Foundation illustrated the extent to which those towns and cities most at risk of high levels of job losses due to COVID-19 had universities nearby. Regardless of the definitions used to demarcate the ‘levelling up’ regions, what remains clear is that graduate-level skills will be an essential part of their future development. Research undertaken in 2019 by the Learning and Work Institute found that as well as a national shortage of 2.5 million highly skilled people by 2030, regional deficiencies were high in areas defined as in most need of levelling up. Many such areas also have very low levels of higher education participation. For instance, there are 168 local authority areas in England where fewer than 15 per cent of young people eligible for free school meals progress to higher education.

Such statistics may not be a surprise to many in the higher education sector, but in the context of a debate where it is claimed too many young people are attending university, it is worth repeating – especially when the evidence shows that disparities in educational achievement account for 80 per cent of the inequality in earnings between children from poor and wealthy families. The evidence further shows that there is the headroom to increase higher education participation in such areas as well as the demand for high-level skills – they are not mutually exclusive. The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that increased higher education participation should be a key part of any genuine ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Policy suggestions

There are a number of areas where positive policy interventions could square the circle. For example, pursuing a new target for higher education participation which is regionally grounded might be useful. As argued above, demographic change and an already increasing participation rate combined with the potential effect of a prolonged recession (which may push more young people into higher education) will lead to natural increases in participation which should be modelled on a regional scale. The present regulatory structure in the form of the Office for Students has its critics, but it could set and guide new participation targets aimed at the regions with low higher education entry. Establishing such targets with reference to sectoral skill needs would enable higher education to meet more effectively Government goals related to the post-pandemic recovery and its industrial strategy. Such targets could also include more flexible delivery, potentially shorter courses including Level 4/5 requirements and include further education colleges – 70% of which deliver higher education, thus making them consistent with the present direction of travel of the government on tertiary education.

The impact of COVID-19 on educational attainment is also likely to last well into the mid-part of the decade. New research to be released next week by AccessHE shows that students from BAME and lower socio-economic groups have distinctly lower grade entry profiles at higher education entry and are more at risk of non-continuation due to the ‘learning loss’ effect resulting from the pandemic. The report also suggests that greater flexibility on ‘offer-making’ would ensure greater access and participation while further institutional investment in more holistic support would help minimise attrition. This would counter the ‘learning loss’ effect on the attainment levels of learners who are likely to be impacted negatively for years to come. A minimum entry threshold of DDD at A-Level was mooted prior to the publication of the Augar Review as a means of restricting higher participation and may still be under consideration. Alternatively an entry ‘guarantee’ made by universities themselves working together to students achieving DDD or equivalent (but not preventing those with lower grades entering if universities wished to admit them) would serve as an incentive to students to achieve but also offer them an assurances in the face of ongoing disruption to their education.

There is also a case for piloting post-qualification admissions approaches. The evidence shows it is what students and teachers/lecturers want. It would give students maximum flexibility in making admissions choices and could make those uncertain regarding entry in January more likely to enter later in the year.

Finally, consultations regarding the future of the national collaborative outreach programme Uni-Connect are about to begin. The programme which receives £30 million annually is delivered via regional partnerships with funding skewed toward areas of lower higher education participation. It works with learners from Year 9 onwards. Continuing with this programme but linking it more strongly to different regional skill needs and building in closer working with local stakeholders would present an obvious opportunity to pursue a new participation strategy while also supporting the levelling up agenda.


Increasing participation in higher education will not come without cost. According to recent estimates by the IFS for this year’s cohort of students the government contribution to higher education could increase by around 20 per cent in the long run due to an increase in student numbers and more challenging labour market conditions for graduates. As student numbers increase and if labour market conditions do not improve then there will a rising cost to government of expansion.

However, COVID combined with long-term changes to the labour market for young people imply that investment in some form of education and training for this group is inevitable. The alternative to investing in higher education participation will not necessarily be cheaper. Politics never presents easy wins. However, a 50 per cent + target for higher education participation may be just what is needed in the post-COVID world. It would be relatively popular and consistent with much of what the government has already said it wishes to do. A change in language and approach to how participation targets have been described in last year would be required. However, fluidity in positioning has become increasingly common in the last year and a shifting stance on a higher education participation target would by no means be the biggest shift we have seen by this government.

1 comment

  1. Les Ebdon says:

    An excellent and well argued riposte to those who decry the value of HE. The post-Covid labour market will look very different to the pre-Covid world, as structural changes have been accelerated. These changes will further emphasise the value of graduate level education. While the Government are right to be concerned about looming skills shortages caused by EU withdrawal and persistent underfunding of the FE sector, it would be foolish to look for recruits to this sector from potential graduates but rather from the ranks of those without significant post-school qualifications before they form an increasingly disaffected group of long-term unemployed adults. There is a clear need for a national recovery plan incorporating both a skills training programme and university expansion.

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