Public policy success - Dorling on HE

2 Feb 2010 by Karl Hallam

Professor Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield geographer and part of the Cadence Network wrote about a public policy success in education last week. Below is the full article.

The Higher Education Funding Council report on who is getting into universities reveals much more than is at first glance obvious. It shows that after years of effort children from poorer areas are going in growing numbers to university. Many more university places have been provided and in the last few years. For the first time ever recorded, the majority of those additional places have been taken up by children living in the poorer half of British neighbourhoods. This was achieved not at the expense of upper and middle-class children, who have also seen their chances improve. It occurred because of the way the education system as a whole has expanded and, most importantly as a result of massive increases in funding per child in state secondary schools in recent years.

Save the children report that more children are living in the worst of poverty in Britain today as compared to 2005. The minimum wage is not a living wage. The life expectancy gap between areas continues to widen alarmingly, faster in recent years than before. The wealth gap is growing despite the crash. Unemployment, employment and industrial success are now hardly things to crow about, but here is one unprecedented success. This is the one success where, compared to previous Labour and even Liberal governments ministers today can say that their record is the best. Participation at universities has been widened in such a way that no one lost out and those who had been most badly served in the past saw their chances improved the most. Unlike so much else that was dodgy in the rhetoric: Education, education, education turns out to have been a priority as evidenced by the increased equality of outcomes now being reported. Not just in opportunity: now in measured outcomes.

The higher education funding council's report is one of the most accurate pieces of work that has ever been undertaken in the monitoring of social policy across the United Kingdom. The fortunes of every child in Britain are now carefully tracked over time and between institutions so that the trends can be plotted with uncanny accuracy. Young people help, they are very careful to put the correct return postcode on their university admissions forms. Dr Mark Corver, the analyst who has put the official report together, has brought together individual records on millions of children and young people to allow the most detailed picture ever of young adults' prospects to be drawn for every street in the country. The report does include projections for the most recent year, but these are based on meticulous work and its conclusions are not reliant on their veracity.

By the end of 2009 some 36% of people in Britain were studying at a university by the age of 20. The increase almost perfectly matches the earlier improvements there have been in GCSE results which in turn almost perfectly match the earlier increases in spending per child in state schools. All this was made much more affordable by the decline in size of the birth cohorts involved. Spending and places have been increased as the numbers of young people coming through have been decreasing. The introduction of education maintenance allowances provided a huge boost to school staying on rates in the poorest areas. Government did help and can take a lot of the credit, but it also helps that so many more affluent children were already going to university that they were not crowding out the rest. The 1960s expansion was an almost exclusively middle class expansion in university places. It also helps that the most affluent of all were concentrating on trying to gain entry to the elite institutions which were not expanding places as quickly as the rest. As a result, as the report says: "Since the mid-2000s the majority of additional entrants to higher education have come from more disadvantaged areas."

Britain still allows fewer of its adults to go to university than the majority of people in other affluent nations are able to. Given this, few will credibly argue that 36% entering by age 20 is too many. The target was 50% by age 30 by 2010. That will still be missed. However, given that the education funding has already been spent in secondary schools, given the gains in GCSE's still coming through, barring draconian restrictions on entry to university in the future we should expect the participation rate to continue rising for many years to come. The most important driver for this prediction is that we know we have fewer 17 years olds than 18 year olds, fewer 16 and 17 and so on and on. Britain remains a hugely divided country; the prospects for the 20% of young people who do not even think of going to university are bleak. The current prospects for all school and university leavers are bleak, and going to university is not the be all and end all. But something has changed. Probably forever. Universities are no longer just for the likes of them.


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