Universities should award students places on the basis of future potential rather than as “reward for past endeavour”, according to Alan Milburn, chair of the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
The former Labour cabinet minister, who is chancellor of Lancaster University, also told Times Higher Education that Jeremy Corbyn’s goal of free higher education is “slightly for the birds”.
David Cameron has put widening participation and access high on the political agenda by setting a target to double the number of young people entering higher education from 2009 levels by 2020.
Mr Milburn called this “a really good objective – that is One Nation Cameronism in action, so to speak”. But although he praised the progress universities had made so far and the work of the Office for Fair Access, he warned that “on current rates of growth I’m afraid it will be a target that will be missed”.
As well as calling for school outreach to be prioritised by universities above bursaries and for “collective efforts” between universities in widening participation, Mr Milburn warned that “in some quarters the argument still has to be won that you can have equity and excellence as friends rather than as enemies”.
Noting contextual data as one method already used in admissions by many UK universities, he said: “When I see some of the greatest universities in the world in the US practising very overt diversity admissions procedures and policies, they are doing so because they don’t see excellence as being compromised – they see it as being strengthened.”
He added: “A university place shouldn’t be reward for past endeavour, it should be a recognition of future potential, in my view at least. I don’t buy that that necessarily means the consequence is you somehow compromise your standards.”
Mr Milburn said that his organisation would have its name changed to the Social Mobility Commission, “subject to the legislation going through”, after the Conservatives abandoned their commitment to child poverty reduction targets set by the Labour government.
He called this “regrettable” and added: “Just because you’ve dropped the targets it doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. Personally I think it’s an outrage that in the fifth or sixth richest country in the world we have 2.3 million children who are officially classified as poor. We should all be outraged by that.”
He continued: “You only have to listen to the tenor of political debate, look at what’s going on in the US right now…and there is a deep public groundswell of anger about rank inequality.”
Mr Milburn, who grew up on a council estate in Newcastle, took over as Lancaster chancellor at the start of last year, 36 years after he graduated from the institution with a history degree.
He joked that he tells people the university is “so good nowadays that I probably wouldn’t get into it”.
Asked what going to Lancaster had meant to him, he said: “It just changed everything in my life. I never expected to go to university. If you came from where I came from, it wasn’t what you did. I got very lucky in my life, incredibly lucky.”
University had “equipped me with skills that have lasted all my life”, he said, as it had “taught me how to analyse, how to question, how to argue”.
Although the growth in higher participation is now “taken for granted”, Mr Milburn said, he believed that “to have trebled the proportion of people going into higher education” within 40 years “is an incredible thing – and not to have compromised quality in the process. British universities, wherever I go in the world, have huge stature, standing, status – for very good reasons. They are just bloody good at what they do.”
Mr Milburn, who was a senior figure in New Labour and is now also chair of the European advisory board of private equity firm Bridgepoint, has attracted criticism from some on the Left over the business consultancy posts that he has taken up since leaving Parliament.
Asked for his views on Mr Corbyn’s aim that Labour should adopt abolishing tuition fees as policy, Mr Milburn said: “It’s like much of Jeremy’s perspective – it’s slightly for the birds.”
He added: “Political parties have got to be able to answer some big and searching questions that people will put to them – like: ‘Where’s the money coming from? Are you going to have a credible economic and fiscal policy?’”
But he called the government’s decision to convert all student maintenance grants into loans “a concern”. He added: “We have to watch that really very carefully. If it looks as though it is [deterring poorer students] then I think the government will need to think again.”
Mr Milburn continued: “It would be unfortunate if having set a great objective [the prime minister’s participation goal] it was undermined by new policy.”
But he sees no need for fees to be lowered from £9,000?
“If the data told me a story of fees deterring [poorer students], then I would be anti-fee,” he said. “But that’s not the story I’m hearing, save in one regard – that’s part-time and mature students.”
Mr Milburn called the part-time situation “a disaster”, adding that it has “not been a good social mobility story”.