Class gap widens under Blair

July 2, 2004

The class divide in UK higher education widened during Tony Blair's first term in office as the children of Middle England reaped the benefits of university expansion, new research reveals.

In the first in-depth study of its kind, academics have charted the likelihood of young people from every UK postcode going to university, from the twilight years of the last Conservative Government through David Blunkett's tenure as the first Education Secretary under new Labour.

They found that all social classes were more likely to go to university between 1994-95 and 2001-02, but participation increased much more rapidly among the aspirant lower-middle classes and those from professional and affluent backgrounds.

In postcode areas where household earnings were £10,950 a year - half the national mean income - the proportion of young people entering higher education increased slightly from 0.89 per cent to 1.77 per cent.

But the participation rate of young people from middle-income homes - families earning £21,890 a year - increased from 10.04 per cent to 19.16 per cent.

Higher up the income scale, for example in the London borough of Enfield - where the mean household income was £40,000 a year - the proportion of young people participating in higher education rose from a third to a half between 1994-95 and 2001-02.

While it has been known for some time that the middle classes have fuelled the expansion of student numbers, the research, by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education, is the first to signal that upfront tuition fees introduced in 1998 failed to deter middle-income families from sending their children to university.

Anna Vignoles of the IoE, who conducted the research with Fernado Galindo-Rueda and Oscar Marcenaro-Gutierrez of the LSE, said: "The message is that things are getting better, everybody is more likely to go into higher education, but the gap between rich and poor is widening.

"People from wealthier neighbourhoods have benefited most from the expansion of HE - they are the ones who are crowding into universities.

People from poorer neighbourhoods are more likely to go than in the past, but not at the same rate."

Dr Vignoles added that efforts to raise a pupil's aspirations before they sit their GCSE exams might have a "bigger impact" on university entrance than intervening at A level.

The Department for Education and Skills said that the social-class gap in higher education had "dogged" the sector for decades, chiefly because of a "discrepancy in attainment, although evidence shows that lower aspirations plays an important part too".

A DFES spokeswoman added that the Government's Aimhigher programme - which aims to raise aspirations and attainment among underrepresented groups - was drawing together universities, schools and colleges to help widen participation.

University applications from Aimhigher areas rose by 4.2 per cent between 2002 and 2003, compared with a rise of 1.6 per cent elsewhere.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England declined to comment before publication of the research.

But John Rushforth, Hefce's director for widening participation, said that universities, schools and colleges had to work together.

"Our view has always been that widening participation is a long-term project," he said. "To bring about the sort of changes we are trying to bring about, you need to start much earlier on in the schools - and that takes a long time to feed through."

Chris Grayling, Tory Higher Education Spokesman, said the research underlined that the Government's planned reform of higher education in 2006 was flawed.

"All the way through the debate over the Higher Education Bill, we've been saying that the issue about widening participation is not about university admissions - it's about the achievement and attainment of children much earlier in their education," he said.

David Rendel, Liberal Democrat Higher Education Spokesman, added that if the advent of fees in 1998 did not deter Middle England from university, it appeared that exemption from paying the charge had not encouraged more applicants from poor backgrounds either.

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