As Labour gathers for its annual conference next week, Huw Richards asks whether the Government's higher education policy is helping or hindering the disadvantaged
TWO LETTERS can make quite a difference. For "equality" that was once Labour's key aspiration, read "equity" for new Labour.
That shift is implicit in Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle's summation in their pre-election book, The Blair Revolution, that "new Labour believes it is possible to combine a free market economy with social justice".
Old Labour was underpinned by distrust of the free market, while Thatcherite Conservatism had little interest in social justice. Mr Mandelson, in his recent Fabian Society lecture, pointed to the Conservative legacy of social exclusion. "It is in this area where Labour can show how we are different and prove that we can make a difference," he said.
He rejected any suggestion that equality had been dropped as an aim. But the language of equity, justice and social cohesion predominates over that of redistribution. Its most active expression comes in the creation of the social exclusion unit, located in the Cabinet Office and run directly By the Prime Minister.
Education will be a prime target for the new unit. The report of the Commission on Social Justice, set up by John Smith and endorsed by Tony Blair said: "Educational improvement is a social and economic mission central to our vision of a more inclusive, productive and cohesive society."
Higher education is a classic area of social exclusion. Expansion means more people than ever before have access to higher education, with particular progress for previously marginalised groups such as women and ethnic minorities (see boxes). But the paradoxical effect of this has been to exacerbate the social biases of higher education.
Enrolments may be much larger, so the number of working-class students is greater than before. However, the social composition of the student body has scarcely changed.
Hilary Metcalf of the Policy Studies Institute found that only 9 per cent of young people entering higher education in 1995/96 came from semi-skilled or unskilled family backgrounds, although they make up just under 20 per cent of the population. Those from skilled and junior non-manual backgrounds, 42 per cent of the population, accounted for 29 per cent. And 62 per cent, against 39 per cent of the population, were from professional, technical and managerial families.
Ms Metcalf sees a shortage of reliable statistics as evidence that unequal social participation rates have been a relatively low priority for government. David Robertson of Liverpool John Moores University and the Institute for Public Policy Research's Josh Hillman made the same point in their work for the Dearing inquiry.
Few doubt that the problem is deep-rooted, extending far beyond the higher education system. Ms Metcalf points to "cumulative disadvantage" incorporating economic, cultural and aspirational factors holding back those from working-class homes. Some appear as intractable as the British class system itself, but there are other issues the Government can address.
Ms Metcalf says that under-representation of lower-class groups is related to educational performance: if their A-level results were better, so would be their chances of a place at university. Alan Smithers of Brunel University argues that the Government's primary school policies will give long-term improvements.
Yet working-class students with good A levels are still less likely to apply to university, or to win a place if they do. In the short term, Ms Metcalf argues that many still think of higher education as "not for people like us" and says schools, universities and in particular the careers service have a job to do here.
But can the government do anything directly through its higher education policy to address these inequalities? The Commission on Social Justice said: "The real barrier to the expansion of higher education in this country is not the cost of entry, but the supply of places."
Professor Robertson says: "Students from less well-off homes do better in times of expansion and are the first to suffer when it stops."
So the Government's vow to renew expansion is a step in the right direction. Whether their chosen means - the new tuition-fees and loans-based funding system - will have the same effect is less clear. "I can't see how the new system can possibly not be a deterrent to working-class students," Professor Robertson says.
The Government points to the exemptions from fees from those on lower and middle incomes. But Ms Metcalf says: "Their effect is not to make things any easier for students from low-income backgrounds, merely to add less difficulty to them than it does to other groups."
But there may be a warmer welcome for another policy apparently in the pipeline. Education secretary David Blunkett indicated this week that funding could be targetted at institutions committed to widening participation.
The Further Education Funding Council for Wales has a system that gives premiums to institutions taking students from postal codes with particularly low participation rates.
The Government also has high hopes for the nascent University for Industry. And observers such as Stephen MacNair, assistant director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, point to the importance of strong further-higher education links to ensure progression for second-chance students.
These are all messages that the social exclusion unit will want to consider, along with a warning from Professor Smithers: "Government has a duty to ensure that everybody has a fair chance at higher education, but there is a limit to how much social engineering you can do."
Sixty-three per cent of part-time students are over the age of 30,compared to 30 per cent of the student body; 53 per cent are female.
Dearing recommended that the student loan scheme should not be extended to part-time students. The Government is still considering this recommendation. Baroness Blackstone told last week's Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals meeting that the last government's preoccupation with full-timers had meant insufficient attention was paid to part-timers. "We shall be looking at how we might start to redress the balance, particularly for those part-time students most in need, such as the unemployed," she said.
Mike Fitzgerald, vice chancellor of Thames Valley University, which has a large part-time enrolment, argues that the proposed reformed loan system could easily be extended to part-timers.
Source: Frank Coffield and Anna Vignoles in Appendix to the Dearing report, report no 5.
Female undergraduate participation has reached the point where Frank Coffield and Anna Vignoles, in research for the Dearing inquiry, can say that "women are finally taking their place as equal participants in the undergraduate experience of HE and this constitutes a major success story in the struggle against exclusion".
But they are still concentrated in some subject areas, providing only 14 per cent of engineering and technology undergraduates, and continue to provide the bulk of second-chance mature and access learners. Equal representation gives way to exclusion further up the academic hierarchy - 35 per cent of postgraduate researchers are women, 31% of lecturers, 16% of senior lecturers, 7% of professors and 5.7% of CVCP members.
Source: Frank Coffield and Anna Vignoles in the appendix to the Dearing report, report no 5.
Students from ethnic minorities are now better represented than the white population in higher education, and in all age groups.But this conceals persistent under-representation among some groups, notably Bangladeshi women and Afro-Caribbean men.Ethnic minorities, particularly Afro-Caribbean and other black groups, are also much better represented in "new" than "old" universitiesand are heavily concentrated in some institutions in London and the Midlands.