Having recently returned from a visit to Belfast, where I addressed the excellent Forum for Access and Continuing Education annual conference, I was remembering my first trip to Northern Ireland in 1981 as a young BBC reporter, covering bombings and shootings at a time of terrible dislocation.
While it was a pleasure to join delegates in what is now a thriving, peaceful and hospitable city, the divisions that still remain served as a prompt for me to encourage those attending the conference to look at the divisions that have surfaced across the rest of the UK in the wake of the European Union referendum.
Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, has conducted some excellent and enlightening analysis of the voting patterns by local authority. His work correlates characteristics such as income or class with the voting outcomes. It is clear for instance that low-income areas were much more strongly pro-Brexit than high-income areas.
In the local authorities with the 20 highest proportions of voters supporting Remain the median income is £27,000; but in the council areas with the 20 highest votes for Leave the median income is £18,000.
But the social factor most strongly and positively correlated with voting outcomes is percentage of degree attainment. In the top 20 Remain areas, the percentage of residents with a degree is 45 per cent; but in the 20 highest Leave areas, the proportion is just 16 per cent. In other words, three times the rate of degree attainment in one set of authority areas than in another.
To be frank, that degree of education-related social division is a national affront. And of course those poor educational outcomes feed directly into low skills, low-income consequences for communities, leading to resentments that, sadly, may be directed at outsiders and immigrants – in turn, leading to the divisions in attitude that have fed the highly damaging national cleavage over Brexit. Thus, educational disparity is both a consequence and a cause of national political division.
It is deeply unhealthy and it is something that a new government needs urgently to address.
At the Open University, we will be working hard to push lifelong learning up the agenda of whoever ends up in No 10, not least because of the vital role it has to play in tackling this educational disparity, with students from areas with historically low participation rates in higher education twice as likely to study part time.
In addition, last year a third of "widening participation" students who started university were mature students – many of whom missed out at 18, many of whom have family commitments, many of whom will be balancing study with work.
It is essential that we have an inclusive and diverse higher education sector that offers the flexibility and support that these students rightly demand, alongside specific policies to address their particular needs.
There have been encouraging steps taken in recent months, such as more generous loans for part-time students and a commitment to ongoing study in the White Paper, but we cannot and will not let up in our push for policies that support lifelong learning.
Recognising prior learning and establishing a clear way of transferring credit between institutions is a huge priority for us, and would mean that students can save money and avoid needlessly repeating what they’ve already learned, helping with retention and completion rates.
Offering flexible routes into higher education will also open doors for people who just want to try out higher education without having to make the full commitment right away. Just recently, FutureLearn unveiled new courses that offer a route to formal qualifications, and we continue to make the case to government for making loans available for people who wish to study individual modules, rather than a full degree.
And we are also very interested in the potential for developing lifelong learning accounts. We see this as part of the solution to the funding dilemmas for the sector, by encouraging individual and employer contributions matched by public funding, with more available for those on low incomes.
With the potential disruption of a change of prime minister, it is crucial that the long-term lessons of 23 June are not lost – that the UK is a nation of profound social and economic disparity that is causing national division. Improved education of adults and the existing workforce is one of the most immediate and direct ways to address that.
Peter Horrocks is vice-chancellor of the Open University. This blog is based on a speech first given at the Forum for Access and Continuing Education annual conference last week.
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