By Gill Wyness
With UK tuition fees now among the highest in the world, but benefits from having a degree remaining substantial, choosing the right university has never been more important for young people. The government has tried to make this easier by offering more and more information not just on the university experience but on the quality of the institution and even the potential wage return students could reap.
Despite all these efforts to make the decision about where to apply as informed as possible, one issue remains: students still apply to university based on their predicted rather than actual qualifications. And these predictions are not always accurate.
Using information on university applicants’ actual and predicted grades and their university attended, obtained from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), I find only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grades that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best 3 A-levels.
For the most part, when we think about social mobility, our concerns are with those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder; people “for whom life is a struggle and who work all hours to keep their heads above water” as Prime Minster Theresa May put it in her most recent speech on the matter. One of the issues often considered is how likely are those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter into higher education. This is often viewed as the direct route to the top jobs in the UK where a degree is almost always a pre-requisite now. The hope is that, if society is meritocratic, rewarding those for effort and achievement rather than family background, if we get more disadvantaged kids into higher education then this will equalise their chances of reaching the top jobs. Unfortunately, in the UK, this does not seem to be the case. Recent research by ourselves, and colleagues from Cambridge, Bath and Warwick university has revealed that higher education is not the leveller we might hope it to be, and that socio-economic differences persist throughout higher education and into the graduate labour market, even comparing those with similar educational attainment.
Every few weeks, a new report emerges raising concerns about the graduate labour market in Britain.
Only recently in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) came out with a plea for a halt to the expansion drive in higher education. Earlier in the summer, an Institute for Fiscal Studies report, while noting that the graduate earnings premium had been steady (or increasing, even) for many years, warned that the future might not be so bright.
Indeed, there seems to be growing concern that, maybe, higher education has expanded to the limit over the past 20 years and can take no more. So, should governments be worried about the underemployment of graduates – that is, graduates doing supposedly non-graduate jobs?
Our short answer to this question is: “Yes, but…” Let us explain why.
In the UK, as in most other developed countries, the substantial increase in participation in higher education observed during the past three decades, has been accompanied by an increase in inequality in access. Indeed, the rate of participation of those coming from more affluent families grew much more than that of those coming from poorer backgrounds. Coupled with the substantial raise in the returns to higher education, this generated a significant exacerbation of within generation inequality.
Since the late 90s’ the UK has been trying to reverse this trend not just through the institution of loans and grants for students from low income families, but also through action aimed at removing some relevant non-financial barriers, namely aspirational ones. The Widening Participation (WP) policy, started in 1998, today receives over 350 million pounds per year of public funds to inspire youths from low socio economic background to go to university. My recent study evaluates the effectiveness of this policy among students who were in high school between 2004 and 2008.
My findings show that the WP policy succeeded in raising the aspirations of students eligible for the programme, and also positively impacted their likeliness to stay on at school. But this did not translate into an increase in college enrollment, except for those from the most affluent families.
One of the main aims of the government’s 2012 reforms to higher education was to create a more marketised system. By increasing the tuition fee cap in England to £9,000 per year, the hope was that universities would compete on cost. The attempt was fruitless; little variation in fees emerged and the average cost of university remains stubbornly close to £9,000. However student financial aid has become marketised over the past decade. This has resulted in huge variation and vast inequalities in the amount of financial support received by students. And with the recent abolition of maintenance grants, these inequalities are set to deepen.