What Dad does ought not matter

University entry has exploded since Robbins, but there are signs that parental social class is re‑emerging as a crucial factor

July 11, 2013

The Robbins report, published in 1963 and seen by some as the last great state paper of the 20th century, shaped the higher education system we have today.

Its 50th anniversary this October will be marked by many, and in a first salvo in this week’s Times Higher Education, Paul Temple, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, hails the report that “cleared the way for expansion by driving a stake through the heart of the ‘more means worse’ argument”.

“Its research showed that entry to university largely depended not on ability but on class: 45 per cent of children whose father was in a ‘higher professional’ occupation entered full-time higher education, compared with about 2 per cent from families where the father was a manual worker,” Temple writes.

While young people increasingly seem to understand the loan repayment system, many parents do not and still talk of having to save up for university

“Only an unusual genetic theory”, he adds, “could link natural ability to your dad’s job.”

The size and scale of today’s higher education sector is a world away from that surveyed by Robbins (even the target, set by Labour 14 years ago, for 50 per cent of young people to attend university has been all but met).

Yet there are threats to this transformation, which has happened within an academic career-span.

Research published this week by the Strategic Society Centre thinktank suggests that charging fees has put renewed emphasis on what your parents did, do and think when it comes to making a decision about university.

The report, Achieving Access for All, found that young people from a household with an annual income above £52,000 a year were far more relaxed about the cost of a degree than those with less wealthy parents, and that those with graduate parents in non-graduate jobs were particularly likely to worry about cost.

Singling out the key to getting young people into university, Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, has said “It’s attainment, stupid”, but the researchers behind this week’s report suggest an alternative: “It’s the parents, stupid.”

An additional “parent factor”, evident in the questions put to David Willetts, the universities minister, at the report’s public launch, is that while young people increasingly seem to understand the loan repayment system, many parents do not and still talk in terms of having to save up to send their children to university or of being unable to afford to do so.

The report is particularly timely in that it coincides with the publication of access agreements for 2014-15, which show that the number of institutions charging tuition fees of £9,000 will increase from three-quarters to nine out of 10.

So how to reach those with the ability and aspiration to go to university but most at risk of deciding that it is “not for people like them” or is not worth the investment?

The mantra of providing them with information, advice and guidance still stands, but this is notoriously difficult to get right, and it will be even harder if, as many believe, the relatively benign terms of the loan repayment system prove unsustainable and have to be torn up after the next election.

At the very least, however, understanding which groups are most likely to be deterred, and why, should help to prevent a return to the days when university access was linked so strongly to your mum’s or dad’s job.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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