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Primary Education News
News Education: bring down the barriers to our best universities | Observer editorial
More of Britain's poorest young people are going to university – but few of them are being admitted to the elite institutions
On Thursday, thousands of 18-year-olds will be opening an envelope containing A-level results that for many will be their passport to university. Yet new figures on access to higher education out last week serve as a reminder that the opportunities it buys remain heavily dependent on social background and schooling. And, as revealed today, those charged with improving access to higher education for the least well off continue to harbour concerns that universities that want to maximise income will take on the middle-class applicants who are most likely to see out their courses and so pay their fees.
There has been no lack of political appetite to champion social mobility and fair opportunity. There is no shortage of resource: the Sutton Trust estimates a total of £1bn is spent a year on initiatives to widen access to university. Yet we seem to be moving backwards. What has gone wrong?
The answer lies in the fudge our political and academic elites have pursued: social mobility through expansion rather than rebalancing. The agenda has been one of the massification of higher education, predominantly through creating places at newer universities, rather than radically opening up access to top institutions. Hence the paradox of last week's figures: while the number of the poorest young people going to any university has continued to rise, just one in five young people from comprehensives and FE colleges got into the top third most selective universities, compared with 86% of privately educated young people.
The flaw at the heart of social mobility by expansion is its assumption that all degrees are equal. The reality is far from the truth. On the one hand, a degree from a top university is almost a prerequisite for a job in professions such as medicine, the law, the civil service and the media. On the other, there is huge variation in the employment prospects of graduates of newer institutions. Too many young people find themselves in a "graduate" job that would have recruited school leavers 20 years ago; and four in 10 recent graduates are in jobs not even requiring a degree. Is it a responsible message to young people that it is always worth taking on debt of at least £35k to go to university, regardless of the quality of the institution? Politicians have a duty to apply a "my child" test: what advice would they give their own?
It is time to ditch expansionary social mobility policies and pursue a more aggressive strategy: opening up the finite number of places at the most selective universities to a broader group of young people. The starting point should be a defence of academic elitism. It is right to abhor academic selection at age 11, but it is also right to defend selection at age 18. The best young people should be creamed off to study in our top institutions. The problem with the current system is it doesn't work: it is ineffective at selecting the brightest regardless of social background.
Rebalancing cannot be achieved without bread-and-butter school improvement. The gap in educational achievement between children of different social backgrounds explains much of the university access gap and is produced by the vastly different educational opportunities they experience. School improvement will not be achieved without encouraging the best leaders and teachers to gravitate towards schools in the most deprived areas. Schools must also be held robustly accountable for narrowing the gap. Yet Michael Gove's structural reforms risk weakening, not strengthening, accountability.
There also need to be stronger incentives for elite universities to work effectively with schools to raise aspiration. The problem is not a lack of cash, but that for too long there has been no real accountability for how universities spend it. Elite universities make shamefully little effort to understand the impact of their work with schools and how they can improve it. Well-meaning access initiatives are too often an exercise in demonstrating willingness to act rather than commitment to achieve results.
There is much more room for innovation and evaluation. More universities should be looking at how they can engage primary schools, given the importance of starting young: for example, the charity IntoUniversity provides academic support and mentoring to primary school children and takes them into universities to undertake projects and lessons. And why not learn from the US, where bright students in state high schools are able to take advanced placement courses at universities? If there was enough commitment, bright children from poor backgrounds could get a passport to a national, university-sponsored support programme, with a guaranteed place at an elite institution should they get the minimum required grades.
Critics would cry social engineering. Yet this ignores the fact that young people from state schools with equivalent grades are both less likely to go to a highly selective university than their privately educated peers, and to perform better if they do go. Accusations of social engineering are too often used to mask the difficult implications of real social mobility: some privileged young people who are less academically deserving will need to make way for brighter children from poorer backgrounds.
As important is the quality of the offer for young people not going to the most selective universities, regardless of their social background. It is not enough to expect them to put up with paying large sums for courses of questionable quality simply because that's the way our system has evolved. Over time, they will come to expect cheaper, better options. Higher education has been slow to embrace shifts in technology and universities will need to be more innovative.
Employers should redirect some of the energy they spend complaining about graduates' lack of employability skills towards creating more opportunities to work and train on the job. And government should support schemes that help young people bridge the social transition from school to work in other ways. For example, in the City Year scheme, young people mentor children and run activities in schools in deprived areas, and access training and development from its business backers.
Achieving greater social mobility by expanding the number of university places has reached its limits. To go further down this route with fees of £9,000 a year would be irresponsible. We should be proud of a system that boasts several of the world's leading institutions. But we should feel ashamed their doors remain closed to many of our best young people because of where they were born and which school they went to.