The Great Higher Education Divorce?


Relentless and refreshing. This is my take on the HE debate that has been raging post the General Election.

Fees. Who pays? Who benefits?  Student debt? The social and economic contribution of HE?

Within weeks of the General Election and within days of the announcement of fee rises on the back of the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework, some now hold that the days of fees are numbered. Others hold that fees have been progressive for the expansion of HE and that gains in widening access are a justification.

The polarisation and turnaround in open debate stems from an electoral surge by young people awakened in the main by a manifesto pledge of the Labour Party to abolish fees. Post election, the debate has been sustained by perception of value for money, the level of student debt and the premium interest levied (disproportionately) on those of less affluent backgrounds.

However, has progress on widening access distracted from a divorce in the undergrowth of the garden of education? The HEPI-sponsored article that I am posting by Professor Tim Blackman, the Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University, delivers a potent salvo on this, with its analysis on social stratification by blind academic selection.

HEPI article by Tim Blackman

Blackman makes the case that HE is tacitly propagating the stratifications of society; that HE is divorcing itself from the values at the heart of policy that the secondary education sector has been held accountable to for decades: that is, academic selection when based on entrance requirements that exceed what is necessary for a potential student to succeed, is tantamount to social discrimination. The underpinning premise is that the habitus of privilege conditions individuals for raised educational opportunity and attainment, and that the sector perpetuates this by not delivering good and equitable outcomes for widening access students across the spectrum of 130 institutions of HE.

Divorces usually involve money, and fees are part of proceedings too as I will show. In the mist of the debate and by the numbers dominance of the sector in England, it may not be widely noticed that the Administrations have diverged in fees policy for their region. Policies range from funding borne (ultimately) by the student – as in England, to funding borne by society – as in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland (NI), a balanced fees/block-grant policy shares the burden of cost across the beneficiaries – i.e. society and the student – in roughly equal proportion. Fees in NI are up to £5,000 less than those in England; and the combined funding for an undergraduate is more ‘productive’ at around £1,500 less.  This might be fairer for access but it does limit opportunity on the number of places that public funding will bear.

We know that demand well exceeds supply. NI has the highest rate of University entry across the UK. Approaching a quarter of intending HE entrants leave the region for GB at higher fee rates. Back home funding is capped and access is falling by thousands for young entrants, full-time entrants and mature entrants. There is now risk of an inflationary phase of academic selection. If selection operates blind to the social consequences we will witness less diversity in our lecture halls, our laboratories and our libraries. Academic discourse and the student experience would suffer as well.

This would be a crying shame as progress in widening access and participation by Ulster University has been exceptional. In the NI policy environment, participation is measured by Multiple Deprivation Measure (MDM: an area-based measure of need). For Ulster University, 38% of students originate from the lowest MDM quintiles. At campus level, up to 51% of participation can be from some of the most needy wards in Western Europe. Poignantly, student achievement of the upper second degree classification – the benchmark classification that most UK graduates achieve – is close to parity between the lowest (49%) and the highest (52%) quintiles.

This is a great educational outcome for those with access, but persistent under-participation pervades sections of our society. NI has some of the best and worst GCSE attainment levels, with gaps of concern by social stratum, gender and community. This is teetering on passive social exclusion.

Take male and female participation as an example. In 2007/08, 47.3% of young female school leavers in NI entered HE. The comparative statistic for young males was 32.6%. By 2014/15 participation was up but the gender gap had expanded to 50.2% and 34.6% respectively. (Source: NISRA data).

All this despite the millions expended annually across NI on widening access and participation. Targeted use of funds differently as part of a civic compact on a new HE funding model for NI could correct some of the contraction and inequity that we see on the horizon. At least we would be taking control.

The passive alterative – to point to other parts of the system for correction of pernicious under-participation – would be to divorce ourselves from our societal obligation and from the respect of our stakeholders and our communities. We will have divorced ourselves too from those who are most able but least likely to benefit.

A solution requires civic partnership across policy, secondary and tertiary education. Access quotas on the model proposed by Tim Blackman might be part of the divorce settlement to combat exclusion risks.

Whatever the solution, NI knows very well the consequences of segregation. Surely at this juncture, for HE in civic compact with society to continue to bring people together in the face of a looming higher education divorce is for better and not for worse.

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