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.
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.
By Gill Wyness (UCL Institute of Education, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, and EconomicsofHE)
Labour’s much anticipated but yet-to-be confirmed policy to reduce the cap on university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year will be highly expensive, could leave universities £10 billion out of pocket – and would only help richer graduates. That, at least, has been the tone of a growing chorus of alarm sounding ahead of what might be one of Ed Miliband’s key pre-election pledges.
Universities are right to be concerned – they may well lose money out of this policy. It also appears a somewhat opportunistic move by Labour to please a proportion of the electorate. But despite this, there are reasons why the policy should not be totally condemned.
By Vikki Boliver (University of Durham)
More than half a dozen academic studies have found that university applicants from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds are less likely to be offered places than comparably qualified white and privately educated peers (see Taylor 1992; Shiner and Modood 2002; Zimdars, Sullivan and Heath 2009; Boliver 2004; Boliver 2013; Boliver 2015; and Noden, Shiner and Modood 2014. The latest study indicates that offer rates from Russell Group universities are 3 to 16 percentage points lower for British ethnic minority applicants than for white British applicants, even after controlling for differences in grades and the possession of so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ at A-level. The same study also shows that offer rates from other ‘Old’ and ‘New’ universities are 3 to 4 percentage points lower for some ethnic minority groups relative to the white group after A-level attainment has been taken into account. There is clearly an urgent need to understand what causes these disparities in university admissions chances, but access to the individual-level data needed to do this kind of research is being closed down.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) decided recently that it will only supply aggregated applications and admissions data to academic researchers. This is surely unacceptable.
Last year an article in the Guardian newspaper described significant disparities in the success rates of white and non-white applicants to the University of Oxford, even among students who received top grades at A-level. The article reported that, in 2010-11, offer rates were around 1.5 times higher for white applicants than for ethnic minority applicants with the same grades, and up to twice as high in relation to Oxford’s two most oversubscribed subjects, Medicine, and Economics and Management. This pattern was found to hold even for students with 3+ A* grades at A-level. Continue reading →