Participation in higher education from young people in disadvantaged groups is greater than ever – but is this the full picture? Andrew Berwick shares some insights from The Bridge Group’s recent social mobility conference

“The UK is a remarkable country: we are the least socially mobile in Europe. You have to work really hard to be the least socially mobile.”

So kicked off Professor Danny Dorling at The Bridge Group’s Bridging the Gaps conference. Everyone present agreed with Professor Dorling – and was pretty upset. The event aimed to understand what drives social immobility, and how to address it.

Conversations focused on routes into university and professional employment. Here are three things I learned from the day.

Student debt is a ticking timebomb

In our higher education system no young person has to pay up front to study – so everyone should be able to access HE.

But the HE system is placing a big bet that prospective undergraduates are willing to run up large sums in student debt – a bet that appears to be supported by widening participation data, with no perceptible impact on participation rates amongst poorer young people since 2012.

But what if loans – and debt – are damaging university participation after all?

The Institute of Education presented credible evidence that poorer students are put off by increased debt. Their study shows that poorer students’ fear of debt in 2015 is more likely to deter them from applying to university than for similar students in 2002. They suggest that, without the 2012 fee increase, we would have seen a greater increase in participation amongst poorer students. And according to the IoE’s figures, these students will now graduate with c.£59,000 of debt.

We all have a role in making sure that young people understand that graduate debt operates largely as a tax, not a ‘debt’ as traditionally defined – and to allow them to make up their minds in full possession of the facts.

‘Closing the attainment gap’ doesn’t close the gap

We focus on closing the attainment gap between richest and poorest with the aim of improving those students’ life prospects. However universities and employers at the conference emphasised that even poorer students with the ‘right’ attainment face barriers on leaving school.

Poorer students are more likely to drop out of university

Poorer students are considerably more likely to drop out of university. Tim Blackman and Vikki Boliver (universities of Middlesex and Durham respectively) argued that this isn’t linked to prior attainment; students are not dropping out from a lack of ability, but due to other factors.

Blackman and Boliver differed on how to address this. Blackman made a compelling pitch for the role of less selective universities such as Middlesex in forming a diverse student body that is more welcoming for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; Boliver felt that selective universities could do more in targeting and supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds once they arrive at university.

The message for schools was that they need to look beyond destination measures, and also consider the success of their young people once they reach those destinations. Building resilience and independent learning skills surely has to be a part of schools’ role.

Universities are getting stuck in

Now the good news.

University ‘access’ spending increased from £120m p.a. to £720m from 2006-2016. And now universities are under pressure to raise attainment in schools. The logic: young people from poorer backgrounds can’t access university without the right grades – so universities should improve attainment.

Let’s skip the irony of giving millions of pounds to raise attainment not to schools, but to universities. We are where we are – and universities are thinking about how to contribute.

Suggested approaches included macro (sponsoring new schools) and micro (providing one-to-one tuition). It is early days, with a limited evidence base around what works. Hopefully this will lead to more meaningful local partnerships between schools and universities. If we’re to rise from the bottom of the social mobility league tables, schools cannot be left to do all the work themselves.

However, that seems like a big “if” right now. The tone of the day was – rightly – urgent and concerned, not optimistic. From debt to drop-out rates, the barriers preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving their full potential are huge and enduring.

 

Andrew Berwick is director of The Access Project, which works with schools to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach selective universities. Twitter: @theaccessp @Andrew_TAP