UK’s elite universities ‘still have social justice problem’

Education committee chair Rob Halfon says ‘sanctions’ should be applied where numbers of disadvantaged students stall or decline

April 23, 2018
Source: iStock

The chair of the UK’s House of Commons Education Committee has urged universities to be “held to account” for what he called their “social justice problem”.

Speaking at a University Alliance event on degree apprenticeships in London on 23 April, Robert Halfon said that he wanted to see “elite universities properly being held to account for the numbers of disadvantaged students they admit”, adding that England’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students, “must lead in this” and consider “sanctions” where necessary.

“We still have a social justice problem in our universities,” Mr Halfon told the event.

He observed that Sir Peter Lampl, the chair of the Sutton Trust, had recently explained to his select committee that “the proportion of pupils from ‘low affluence’ households intending to attend university is the lowest in seven years”.

“We know that state school entrants are stalling, and falling in some of our most elite universities,” said Mr Halfon, who is the Conservative MP for Harlow, adding that there has been a “16 per cent decrease in undergraduate entrants from low participation areas between 2011-12 and 2015-16” thanks to the “collapse in part-time students”.

Commenting that the National Audit Office has warned of a “two-tier system developing where the most disadvantaged attend the lowest-ranked providers”, Mr Halfon said that some universities might not deserve the tag “elite”.

“Perhaps we should regard universities as elite only if they are providing a real ladder of opportunity to the disadvantaged,” he said, stating that there “must be sanctions from the new regulator for those universities who are failing in this regard”.

Mr Halfon praised those universities that are expanding their provision of degree apprenticeships, which he said were his “two favourite words in the English language”.

The earn-as-you-learn qualifications were essential to “fighting both social injustice in our higher education system and boosting this country’s productivity” because students do “not incur mountains of debt” and “they get good quality jobs at the end”, he said.

Mr Halfon said that the UK should seek to have half of all its university students enrolled on degree apprenticeships – a desire he first revealed in a Times Higher Education interview in November 2017.

Last month, Adrian Anderson, the chief executive of the University Vocational Awards Council, said that he believed that one in 10 of the degrees awarded in the UK could be linked to an apprenticeship within the next three years.

Mr Halfon also said that he wanted to see universities allowed to spend their access and widening participation funds – which will total £860 million in 2018-19 – on degree apprenticeships, saying that the qualifications “can and must play a significant role in boosting the numbers of disadvantaged students studying at university”.

Mr Halfon said that he also wanted to see the government “making it easier for universities to expand their degree apprenticeship provision”, stating that the process for approving degree apprenticeship standards must be “quicker and smoother as the sector becomes more involved in the provision”.

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