Leader: Class action is no waiting game

July 2, 2004

This week's research on class divisions in higher education provides further confirmation of the widening gap between rich and poor. It is a trend that is not confined to the UK, but it is no less shameful for that. And the fact that the divide is particularly stark here places added onus on universities and the Government to redress the balance.

More detailed scrutiny of the joint London study reveals better news beneath the depressing headlines. The introduction of tuition fees does not appear to have depressed demand among those sectors of the population required to pay them. Indeed, there has been a healthy increase in participation in the very households that were hit hardest by fees, and which will have most to lose in the top-up era.

The middle classes tend to be lumped together in social critiques of higher education as if they formed one amorphous Wimbledon-watching, Glyndebourne-going group. In fact, as the continuing exchanges between Times Higher readers demonstrate, they cover a growing spectrum.

For an increasing proportion of university places to go to the children of less-than-affluent families may not be the triumph that ministers seek, but it should not be dismissed lightly. Given the influence attributed by the LSE researchers to earlier phases of education, step-changes of this sort may be a more realistic expectation. Intelligence crosses class boundaries, but the research emphasises once more that levels of aspiration and the provision of high-quality education are less democratic. Only early intervention (well before GCSE) will make a substantial difference to the life chances of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic tree. Such a conclusion represents a double-edged sword for higher education. It may let universities off the hook, to a limited extent, when they continue to be dominated by the middle classes, but it strengthens the case for a redistribution of funding within the education system. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has often said that he would spend any additional money on nurseries, not universities, and it appears that the "big idea" for the next Labour manifesto will involve an expensive extension of provision for two-year-olds. Higher education may see the benefit in the distant future, but it will have to fight harder to maintain its share of the education budget.

The critics of efforts to widen participation in higher education no doubt see a victory on the horizon, but the logic behind investment in the early years will be little consolation to the teenager on the sink estate.

However imperfect the measures to extend access might be, successive generations cannot be ignored while the entire state system is overhauled.

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