Social mobility must underpin higher education

Peter Horrocks

Peter Horrocks

Former Vice-Chancellor
The Open University

​​Higher education is entering a critical period that could have profound implications for every university in England.

The establishment of the Office for Students (OfS) and the promise of a UK government review of tertiary education funding might be a cause for anxiety in some quarters but a source of hope in others.

I believe that universities should resist the temptation to dig in and consolidate in the face of perceived threat. Instead they should grasp a rare opportunity to shape the future – as Sir Michael Barber puts it, to "seize the opportunities that lie before us".

Here is a chance to ensure, for the long term, predictable and sustainable funding, equality of opportunity for all students and the availability of high quality university education at every level of society.

There's no doubt that the 2012 funding changes in England have helped to increase full-time student numbers and provide secure income streams for many of our top universities and I welcome that. But success in the full-time sector masks a catastrophic market failure in the part-time sector.

Part-time student numbers in England tumbled by 59 per cent in the five years to 2016/17 - but appear to have held up much better in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have different funding arrangements.

And that collapse has had a serious and largely hidden knock-on effect. As ministers trumpet a welcome rise in young students from disadvantaged backgrounds starting full-time courses in England, they focus rather less on the simultaneous 54 per cent fall in disadvantaged part-time students since the funding reforms of 2011/12. Not surprising, since the figures combined suggest an overall reduction of 17 per cent.

How has this come about? The reasons are complex but they boil down to the fact that part-time students are different.  They tend to be older, many are in work and have family commitments, some are carers, and a relatively high number are disabled. As a group they are considerably more debt averse than many 18-year-olds. Historically, they have also included a significant proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds. The higher fee regime has driven many of them not to the full-time sector but out of higher education altogether.

The OfS now has a golden opportunity to put social mobility at the heart of its mission and to turbo-charge efforts to widen access to universities across the board.

You can't widen access through a narrow lens. I believe there are five clear steps that could transform the opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There should be national targets for access, participation and student outcomes, supported by regulation and funding decisions. To promote fairness for all, targets should include students of all ages and take in other factors such as ethnicity and disability.

The OfS should incentivise collaboration between universities to ensure that the UK government's social justice objectives are met, encouraging the sector to work together to improve success rates among the most disadvantaged groups. It should ensure funding and results are aligned so that students who need the most support are offered it and that fewer are put off by the thought of high fees and debt.

Would-be students should be offered informed choice through a single portal that gives them comprehensive advice, guidance and information covering all their options for a higher education. And they should have sufficient flexibility to be able, if they wish, to pick and mix courses, take study breaks, transfer between universities or learn in bite-sized chunks.

Separately, the tertiary education review needs to take a long, hard look at the impact of higher fees on part-time study in England. If we are serious as a country about preparing for a world beyond Brexit, about tackling chronic skills shortages, about answering the challenges and opportunities posed by artificial intelligence, we must make lifelong learning a reality.

Lord Willetts has said repeatedly that the unforeseen impact of the changes on part-time is one of the greatest regrets of his time as higher education minister. To allow part-time education to continue to be dismantled by the vagaries of market forces would be a betrayal of the very people any government committed to social justice should be helping.

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LIBT says:
12 March 2018 at 07:34

Fantastic Post..thank you for sharing such a post. Social mobility must underpin higher education. Do keep posting such post

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