Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

The pervasive belief in low aspirations could undermine the Government’s ‘reboot’ of widening the doors to higher education

  • 2 December 2021
  • By David Woolley

This blog was contributed by David Woolley, Director of Student and Community Engagement at Nottingham Trent University.

The Government has expressed its intention to refocus the entire Access and Participation regime. This should not be a surprise; there have long been questions over the impact of the significant sums spent on this agenda and the Government have broader priorities than simply access to a traditional undergraduate degree.

For many institutions, the change might not be as radical as portrayed. The focus on outcomes has long been a concern of many post-92 institutions, ‘who do much of the heavy lifting’ in social mobility.

But there can be no doubt that changes are afoot at the Access stage of the student lifecycle and much of it is good. Asking institutions to take a more altruistic approach; to focus less on their own recruitment and more on the good of their ‘place’; to develop new and more flexible forms of study are welcome developments. This direction could give a blueprint on how providers can contribute to the Levelling Up agenda.

But among the ‘new’, it is disappointing to see some of the more unwelcome elements of the ‘old’ remain. A belief that was going out of fashion again gets a new hearing – namely that the problem is, at least partly, down to low aspirations among the disadvantaged. It was referenced in Michelle Donelan’s speech at the Times Higher Education conference and then doubled down on in the guidance letter from Secretary of State and the Universities Minister to the Office for Students.

Much has been written about this before. There is not much evidence that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have low aspirations and perpetuating that belief moves the responsibility of tackling poverty and disadvantage from political and economic actors to young people.

I have never met a parent or pupil who does not want better for themselves but I have met plenty who have not had the means (money, knowledge, capital) to access it.  As Chris Millward said in his recent HEPI blog, these students talk about expectations, not aspirations. Thanks to the growing body of evidence as to ‘what works’ in this field (see the Education Endowment Foundation and TASO toolkits) we have a better idea of what to do – aspiration raising activity is not shown to be effective.

This is important – language matters. It creates the lens through which the situation is viewed, by both the authors of the guidance and those following it. In this situation, there can only be one person who is responsible for their aspirations and that is the person themselves. With this framing, the disadvantaged and under-represented are themselves to blame. Not only does this place them as ‘a problem to be fixed’, another old trope, it reduces the effectiveness of the interventions.  There is some evidence in favour of the activities that the Government mentions (summer schools, tutoring, programmes of intervention in schools) but they are much less likely to be successful if the organisers and leaders of those programmes view the participants as being, at least partly, to blame for their situation. Sending higher education students to tutor pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, pupils with caring responsibilities or pupils who lack a quiet space to study, with the attitude that they need their aspirations raising is patronising and will increase division in society.

It also lets providers off the hook for one of the most challenging aspects of this whole agenda – our role in creating an unequal system. We should not forget that education is a construct that we have built.  Research into differential outcomes identified issues relating to: the curriculum, teaching, relationships between staff and students – all things that we have created.  To be fair, the Ministers’ letter to the Office for Students does make reference to inequality baked into the system. She is right in remembering this does need to be addressed.

If we are to take full advantage of the new approach and ethos outlined in the Government guidance then we should not let this pervasive assumption remain. The Minster speaks of the need for bespoke plans because one size does not fit all. This requires constructive, co-creation ‘with’ (and not ‘to’) pupils, families and  communities.  It needs to take into consideration their ‘place’, their particular circumstances and crucially their assets.

In Levelling Up, the Government has successfully tapped into a sentiment felt by millions. Hence their thumping majority. Let us not insult those people by stating it is their lack of aspiration that is to blame. There is growing evidence as to ‘what works’ some of it for the interventions the Government favours and the Government should focus on that to achieve its aims.

David’s previous HEPI blogs, all on related issues, are here, here, here and here.


  1. Rob Cuthbert says:

    It is right to say that HEIs need to be more altruistic, wrong not to acknowledge that the market regime (made statutory by HERA) is what pushed HEIs away from altruism. Altruism typified Aimhigher, mistakenly abolished by David Willetts with bipartisan support. Aimhigher was ostensibly driven by the idea of ‘low aspirations’, which should not be resurrected, but in practice Aimhigher was mostly about changing the views of the disadvantaged about what was possible, not what they aspired to. Hence ‘possible selves’, advanced by Neil Harrison and others with direct experience of working on Aimhigher. eg Ever since, WP practitioners have worked (brilliantly) against the odds, and the statutory framework, to recreate the kind of co-operation which works best for widening access.

  2. S Ahern says:

    Being a first in family entrant to Higher Education, aspiration was never an issue but knowledge about HE and how it works was.

    I simply didn’t know that HE was free, until they announced the introduction of tuition fees. Thankfully at the time mine were waived, but if I was looking at going to university now I’m not sure I’d be so sure about it.

    When you don’t have the social or economic capital of more tradtional applicants it becomes a serious gamble and potentially a lifetime of debt that will automatically limit some elements of social mobility.

    Structurally much more needs to be done to level the playing field. To ensure that everyone entering HE reeps equal benefit as a result.

    Students don’t need fixing, our institutions do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *