The picture on widening HE participation gets worse the closer you look

14 Oct 2021, 14:44

The latest government data out today shows more people need to progress into levels 4 and 5, writes Nick Hillman

The higher education sector – universities, colleges and private providers – has made huge strides in widening participation in recent times.

Degrees were once for white middle-class men. Today, female students outnumber male students and enrolments are proportionately higher for people with BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds than for others.

Meanwhile the likelihood of people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds making it to higher education is much higher than in the past.

Relative to other national institutions or the elite professions, higher education institutions have become more reflective of our society (at least among their students if not always among their senior staff).

This positive story has been maintained throughout COVID. Most people did not expect that.

Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UK’s most respected think tank, predicted the pandemic could lead to a significant drop in home students (and a huge drop in international students) as well as a wave of institutional bankruptcies.

Had that upheaval happened, you can bet your bottom dollar that it would have affected students from the poorest backgrounds first and worst.

But nearly every prediction about how the crisis would affect higher education has turned out to be wrong: demand from UK school leavers is up, not down; drop out rates are down, not up. The big jump in young people’s grades has made it easier for them to attend higher education.

This story partly reflects the paucity of good alternatives in the crisis – gap years are out, for example – but it also proves the pandemic has not dampened the aspirations of students.

That is the good news. But the overall picture on widening participation resembles a painting that looks good from a distance but which looks worse with every step you take towards it, as the detail hoves into view.

The latest data confirm this. Some groups have been left behind as others have made rapid progress. For example, the proportion of white British males entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) is just 12.6 per cent and has fallen for two years running.

While almost half (48.5 per cent) of pupils in Inner London entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) make it to higher education by age 19, the number for FSM pupils in the country as a whole is just 26.6 per cent.

Such facts are depressing, though it also shows the rich dividends you can get from the sort of concerted effort to improve education that London has seen.

However, as this week’s debates in the House of Lords on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill shows, there are some new blots on the horizon that could make further progress hard.

Much recent growth in widening participation has come from students with BTECs, yet they are now under threat.

After enrolment, students from groups that were traditionally under-represented are more likely to drop out and less likely to achieve so-called ‘top’ grades (Firsts and Upper Seconds).

After graduation, new inequalities arise, most notably for female graduates who face a large graduate pay gap. The education system may have a man problem but the labour market has a woman problem.

If we are to move from having a low skills economy to a high skills economy, as people across the political spectrum rightly keep saying they want, we need more educational opportunities of all sorts – especially as the number of young people grows over the next decade.

Yet some influential policymakers still argue that higher education places should be capped.

The Association of Colleges in contrast know it must not be a zero-sum game where mid to higher level opportunities come at the expense of the highest opportunities.

The country’s skills problem is not too many graduates; it is that too many people’s formal education stops at Levels 2 and 3 (or below). Unless we have more people progress to Levels 4 and 5 and more people then progress to Levels 6 and 7, widening participation will come to a juddering halt and then reverse.

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