The UK government’s target to double the number of disadvantaged young people going to university by 2020 is laudable. Access to higher education offers a platform for young people to succeed and is central to establishing a meritocratic society.
Nevertheless, while access provides the foundations, it doesn’t build the house. If we’re really serious about meritocracy, we have to be ever vigilant about what happens to young people once they are at university too.
The issue of retention is at the very heart of the social justice agenda but it suffers from a lack of attention and, frankly, a lack of care from both the media and politicians. The most recent statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency are a real concern, showing that the proportion of disadvantaged students dropping out increased from 7.7 per cent in 2012-13 to 8.2 per cent in 2013-14. While such rates are low in comparison with international standards, they are still too high. The financial and social consequence of dropping out of university – particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds – shouldn’t be underestimated.
Plans for further reform may inadvertently make matters worse in the coming years unless we act quickly to offset the impact of policy. One example is the removal of the cap on undergraduate student numbers. This is undoubtedly the right thing to do: it will allow successful universities to grow and permit more students to attend their first-choice institution. But when this policy was introduced in Australia, dropout rates increased.
There are, of course, significant differences between the UK’s higher education system and Australia’s. For example, the UK is currently experiencing a downturn in the number of people turning 18 (projected to last into the 2020s), while Australia was seeing higher numbers when it removed its cap in 2012. But we must not be complacent. The funding structures incentivise universities to grow and they will respond as aggressively as possible. That’s not a bad thing, but it will cause problems if those that expand rapidly are unable to deal with the consequences.
If they recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds (which I hope they do), they need a clear plan for supporting them. The fact is that such support infrastructure is often below par at our most competitive and elite institutions; the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claimed in its 2015 report State of the Nation that the most selective institutions have the biggest gaps in their non-continuation rates between their most and least advantaged students.
But it is not just socially disadvantaged students who need stronger support at university. There has, for instance, been an increase in the number of all types of students who identify as having mental health issues. That doesn’t necessarily mean more students today have mental illnesses: it could be that greater awareness has resulted in more students identifying symptoms or being willing to confide in others. But it does highlight how critical an issue it is for universities to deal with. We know that well-targeted mental health support can help young people to continue in higher education where otherwise they might have dropped out.
Retention is one of the big challenges to the sector that the UPP Foundation, whose advisory board I chair, hopes to address. The foundation, set up this year by the student accommodation provider University Partnerships Programme, made its first grant to Student Minds, a student mental health charity, to deliver a pilot scheme that will look at different kinds of support interventions and train staff to better identify mental health problems. We hope that this will result in the production of guidance to the whole sector.
It is time we focused on the entire student journey. It’s great that more disadvantaged young people are going to university, but it’s only meaningful if they stay the course and get a good job afterwards.
David Laws is chair of the UPP Foundation advisory board and was minister for schools and the Cabinet Office in the previous coalition government. He was MP for Yeovil from 2001 to 2015.