May wants end to class divide but realpolitik is driving this review

Launching the post-18 education review in Derby tells you all you need to know about why yet another look at HE is vital for the prime minister’s political future

February 19, 2018
Protester dressed as Prime Minister Theresa May
Source: Getty

The setting for Theresa May’s speech announcing yet another review delving into university funding tells you everything you need to know about why this one is supposed to be different.

It wasn’t at a university, despite the city of Derby having one of the country’s most successful post-92 institutions. It was at the city’s further education college.

This is supposed to be the review, after all, that will once and for all “throw away” the “outdated attitude” that university is the only desirable route for young people and that taking a non-HE route “is something for other people’s children”.

Like her speech on the steps of No 10 when she became prime minister, Ms May was probably most persuasive on this point (don’t a lot of us want the moon on a stick when it comes to social mobility?).

She used the example of a working-class child who faces the “odds stacked against him” in wanting to go to university and become a lawyer, and compared this with a middle-class privately educated kid who was expected to go to university but might be better suited to another route.

The prime minister’s aspiration is to have a post-18 system that helps turn Britain into a “Great Meritocracy” in which these distinctions no longer matter.

But try telling that to the parents who have spent thousands of pounds to make sure that their child manages to get the good A levels needed to go to university. A vocational (a funny term really because degree courses with some of the best employment outcomes are vocational, like medicine) and technical education might be the best route for some of these children, but something tells me that Britain – the home of entrenched class snobbishness (from both sides, I should add) – is not going to ditch these attitudes overnight.

No amount of tinkering with the post-18 education landscape is going to change the fact that a class divide in education begins well before 18.

It starts in the communities we live in, the social circles people associate with and the schools (and this means sought-after state schools as well as private institutions) to which parents choose to send their children (because they simply want the best for them).

But using Derby to play host to the launch was also significant for the real reason that this review is needed, beyond the probably well-intentioned desire to see an end to the class divide in post-18 education.

As Times Higher Education showed last year through some amazing work by our data team’s Emma Deraze, Derby had one of the most marginal constituencies that could be swayed by the student vote.

And sway it did, turning to Labour much like many other seats in student towns and cities across the country.

So along with the platitudes about breaking down false FE/HE boundaries, about the necessity of creating a post-Brexit education system that is fit for purpose, the new review – just like the last one ushered in during the dying days of Gordon Brown’s Labour government – is really just about cold, hard politics and winning back the youth vote.

So strap yourself in for a year of going over all the same ground about tuition fees and student debt that we have been covering since 2010, with the end result that the government will just pick the option that it thinks will nullify Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal with the kids, whether that makes good policy or not.

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