Greening: English policy agenda will ‘level down’ opportunity

Former education secretary attacks ‘short-term, myopic and dysfunctional’ thinking in THE article

August 6, 2020
Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening

Mooted government plans to rebalance post-school education in England towards colleges and curtail university expansion would “entrench privilege” and, far from achieving the goal of “levelling up” prosperity, would be “the essence of levelling down”, according to a former education secretary.

In a series of recent speeches, current education secretary Gavin Williamson and universities minister Michelle Donelan have outlined plans to create a “German-style” further education system and have suggested that some disadvantaged graduates would have ended up earning more and owing less if they had taken a college course.

But, writing in Times Higher Education, Justine Greening, who was education secretary between 2016 and 2018, warns that it is “wrong to set up higher and further education in opposition to one another”.

Ms Greening criticises the “simplistic fixation on average graduate earnings as the only proxy for whether a degree course and institutions delivered value for money”, highlighting how students from disadvantaged backgrounds “can get a better class of degree from the same course at the same university yet still go on to earn less than more privileged peers with more connections”.

“It is an indictment of 21st-century Britain that connections still come before competence and it is utterly perverse that instead of fixing this structural inequality, an argument is now being constructed within government and its supporting commentariat that turns their disadvantage against young people who aspire to do better – and against those higher education institutions that help them the most,” Ms Greening writes.

Ms Greening, the founder of the Social Mobility Pledge, highlights how many universities are collaborating with further education institutions “to spread opportunities more widely”, and urges greater use of contextual admissions. Levelling up, she says, “is about enabling more young people to have high aspirations and realise their potential”.

She adds: “A move to reintroduce student caps longer term, shift away from contextualised admissions and penalise less well-connected young people for being less able to reap the financial rewards from their degree would be the essence of levelling down.

“More progress can and must be made. But if urgent reform is needed anywhere, it is within government thinking itself. Unless policymakers take a long, hard look in the mirror, the danger is that short-term, myopic and dysfunctional Treasury thinking will further entrench privilege, prevent levelling up and harm the UK’s talent pipeline.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Greening: policy will ‘level down’ opportunity

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Reader's comments (3)

Too often when a situation in which some people are disadvantaged is identified, the proposed solution is to 'drag down' those who are benefiting from inequality, rather than taking the opportunity to seek to 'lift up' the disadvantaged people to a comparative level with the priviledged.
Difficult to see how they could do otherwise when FE and HE are competing for the same shrinking pot of Tax Payers money. As for 'levelling down', hardly, the dumbing down of HE is a major concern for many employers, something that's barely acknowledged in the rarefied air of HE's ivory towers. Many students who enrol in University struggle with the work, their preparation in FE right the way back to pre-school is a factor, as is the inability of HE to set sensible entry grade requirements that match the minimums actually needed, desperation for fee's post Covid will likely make this even worse. But it's not just the prep, unpopular as it is to discuss intelligence and ability those on the lower part of the bell curve will never be able to be 'lifted up' simply by attending University, the inbred wealth elite produce some of the least able s-too-dense, many of whom have their way 'bought' into the HE system by their families and many then buy their way into jobs too. Likewise too many on the upper part of the curve have been failed at school, lazy Marxist teachers hate bright questioning children, something I saw far too often as a school governor. Then there's the very real skills shortage FE and employers working together have been trying to address, though actually getting ones hands dirty when you can sit in lectures at Uni might not seem popular many able and functioning but less able (I.Q.80 and up) young people do rather better with 'trade skills' training, and a qualified electrician or plumber has a skill for life that pays quite well, especially without the burden of a student loan to pay off. HE and FE need to work together, and acknowledge both their strengths and their weaknesses in the process, Universities cannot operate without the skilled trades people that build and maintain their physical infrastructure, nor with on-line courses the skilled and semi-skilled trades people getting their hands dirty installing the fibre optic links that make it possible.
Levelling up is an approach that was never going to work and it is time to admit failure and seek a different way to release more talent from those brought up in less favourable circumstances. It is true that some individuals from poorer backgrounds have done well but it was ever thus. By the age of 3 (some would say from conception) there are babies that will do better than others. There are many factors at work but genetics and environmental factors seem to make the greatest difference. If we are ever going to make a substantial, positive change for the better for those born into very poor communities we must start as early as possible and put masses of money behind the project. Expecting an intervention after the age of 16 to make a difference for the many is totally unrealistic. Better pay / higher incomes for their parents is the base necessity. Better child care, parental care, better schools and teachers up to the age of 11 is the next stage.

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