Barber: capping student numbers would stifle social mobility

Outgoing Office for Students chair defends university expansion before taking up government role

January 21, 2021

Those who argue that having 50 per cent of young people go to university is too much “ignore what is going on around the globe” and “stand in the way of social mobility”, according to Sir Michael Barber, the outgoing Office for Students chair.

Sir Michael, who leaves the English higher education regulator in March and has been appointed by Boris Johnson to lead a review of government “delivery”, made the remarks in a speech at King’s College London.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said last year that he was “tearing up” the target for 50 per cent of young people in England to enter higher education. The target, set by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair in 1999, has already been achieved.

There has been speculation about whether the government would seek to limit the numbers entering higher education.

Giving the commemoration oration at King’s, in which he set out priorities for universities in the future, Sir Michael said Mr Williamson was “right” that the target was “no longer needed”.

“While there is no need for a further target, we should be wary of a limit,” he continued. “The changing nature of the labour market combined with the continuing improvement of our school system, make it highly likely that more school leavers will aspire to higher education in future than have in the past.”

Sir Michael added: “If the option of assembling a degree over a decade or so, combined with periods of work, takes off, as recommended by Philip Augar [who chaired the government’s review of post-18 education], one can see still further demand for higher education being unlocked.”

He continued: “Those who argue that 50 per cent of the cohort going to university is too large a percentage not only ignore what is going on around the globe; they also, whether they intend it or not, stand in the way of social mobility.

“In South Korea, 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds hold a tertiary education qualification. In England, 58 percent of 18-30 year olds from the highest participation neighbourhoods attend university; whereas just 28 percent from the lowest participation areas do so.

“In other words, the argument for a cap on numbers is simply that ‘While, of course, my children will attend university, other people’s children don’t need to’.”

Sir Michael’s speech also focused on free speech and “diversity of perspective” among academics.

On the latter, he asked: “How often does groupthink, conscious or unconscious, influence appointments? How often do we hear that someone has been turned down, not on the quality of their track record in research and teaching, but because existing faculty took the view that the proposed appointee ‘would not fit in’?”

Sir Michael offered no specific examples here beyond a survey by Policy Exchange, a right-wing thinktank.

In his conclusion, Sir Michael said that he was “in favour of” universities “providing a pathway to gainful employment for students”, “of their contribution to economic growth and regeneration, locally and nationally”, “of their civic contribution”, “of good teaching and learning, digital or otherwise”, “of research, especially fundamental research” and believes “profoundly in the importance of scholarship”.

He added: “I hope too that every student will have a fulfilling experience of higher education and make memories that last a lifetime. I have sought, as chair of the OfS, to have played a modest part in advancing these agendas.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

That social mobility automatically follows University attendance is a myth. We need more vocational training at FE level, not pointless degrees.
"Outgoing Office for Students chair defends university expansion before taking up government role" - this sub heading does not describe the message from Michael Barber, as I understand it. He does not say he wants "University " expansion - he wants HE expansion. If I get his drift correctly, he wants less funding on 3 year University degrees and I totally agree with him. Read his lips "more school leavers will aspire to higher education in future than have in the past.” and “In South Korea, 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds hold a tertiary education qualification." Tertiary education NOT DEGREES

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