A risk of dissension

December 14, 2001

To widen access, Tony Blair may have to antagonise Middle England, says Wendy Piatt.

Only the most cynical would doubt the government's earnestness about widening participation in higher education. The secretary of state for education is conducting a review of student finance, reputedly inspired by fears that the working class is being deterred by the current regime. Tony Blair has personally pledged to ensure that 50 per cent of young people will have gained experience of higher education by 2010.

However, this target will not per se guarantee wider participation. Previous periods of expansion increased the total numbers of working-class students in higher education, but they overwhelmingly benefited the middle classes. There is a danger that attempts to reach the 50 per cent target will do likewise. Contrary to the myth, middle-class participation has not reached saturation point.

Grants were scrapped and fees introduced to fund expansion. But there is a growing consensus that the government underestimated the level of debt aversion among working-class communities. A degree may be a sound investment, but it is an unknown quantity and a greater risk for those from non-traditional backgrounds. Rates of return are meaningless in the absence of successful graduate role models. Many do not realise they are eligible for concessions and bursaries because the system is too confusing; most do not realise their loan repayments are income-contingent. There is a case for targeting extra support to the neediest students through, say, a higher education maintenance allowance (Hema).

But the importance of finance can be overstated. The evidence is still inconclusive, and even in the era of full grants, working-class participation was extremely low.

There may well be vestiges of overt and unconscious bias in the admissions process. However, vice-chancellors are largely justified in claiming that they are not responsible for the disadvantages some candidates have experienced during their school years.

Indeed, the fundamental reason for the underrepresentation of lower social classes in higher education is that a far smaller percentage succeed in reaching the two A-level gold standard. Forty-eight per cent of 18-year-olds from managerial and professional households obtained at least two A-level passes in spring 2000, compared with 14 per cent from semi-skilled and unskilled manual backgrounds. The completion rates for some vocational qualifications are alarmingly low. Once a working-class pupil has defied the odds and obtained the two A-level entry requirement, he or she is highly likely to take up a university place. Seventy-one per cent of working-class students who gained two A levels progressed to higher education in 1993 compared with 86 per cent of those from professional backgrounds.

Efforts to bridge this 15 percentage point gap have a role to play. But such measures are of less importance than attempts to enable working-class pupils to get A levels. Widening participation in higher education is therefore dependent, to a large extent, on the performance of further education and sixth-form colleges.

To their credit, ministers have recognised this. One of the most effective policy instruments to date has been the education maintenance allowance (Ema) of up to £40 a week. Our report Opportunity for Whom? recommends a national roll-out of the Ema pilot scheme, its extension to 19 to 24-year-olds and loans for students taking a level-3 qualification.

However, the distribution of funding disproportionately favours higher education institutions and students. There is a strong case for redistributing funds from higher education to further education, from richer institutions to the less well-endowed, from more affluent to poorer students. But this does not mean less money for higher education: individuals who receive handsome dividends from their degree should be prepared to pay more towards it.

Any reduction in the subsidies given to the middle classes will be a political challenge. But Tony Blair may have to risk dissent in middle England if he is determined to give thousands more working-class students the opportunity to benefit from further and higher education.

Wendy Piatt is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Opportunity for Whom? is available from info@ippr.org.uk .

* Should funds be redistributed from higher to further education? Email soapbox@thes.co.uk

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