Today is the first anniversary of when Total Equality for Students (TEFS) was born. The first posting was on the 19th September 2017: ‘When is a university not a university’. This was at a time when yet another generation of students was preparing to embark upon their studies and, after 36 years at Queen's University Belfast, I was no longer part of that transition. I miss the excitement badly but it was time to move on and start a fresh challenge.
I could only start my efforts from the perspective of a simple scientist and naturally adopted a scientific approach to gathering background data before setting out to take actions or conduct experiments. After 26 years leading research in Biochemistry and Microbiology linked to environmental science at the QUESTOR Centre in Belfast, I only know this way to understand how things work, how to work with others to ask the right questions and to address problems that arise. The simplest advice is always that the first experiments are conducted in the library. With that in mind, I have learned a lot in twelve months. Through experience, I have a capacity for dealing with copious data and have pored over reams of statistics and reports emanating from government and the sector in general. TEFS is a distillation of a lot of that background.
Many issues and questions are now being addressed in what is the start of a wider campaign for TEFS. The library phase is now close to being over.
I have been impressed by the many different organisations and charities that are stepping in to assist the most disadvantaged students. I have met with some of these and been hugely humbled by their efforts. The Sutton Trust stands out as pre-eminent in the field through its sheer weight of resources and effort. Others provide a vital resource for students from disadvantaged backgrounds such as Brightside that helps with the routes that students take. Of particular influence has been the incredible efforts of Stand Alone on behalf of students estranged from their parents. There are wider lessons to be learned and these people are all stepping in where Government has profoundly failed.
I have also met with many of the so called 'stakeholders' in the UK. Some senior managers and VCs seem to be out of touch but fail to recognise it themselves. Many of their staff are conflicted by the insatiable performance management demands put upon them to do research for REF one day and teaching for TEF the next. Others are working hard in student support departments to deal as best they can with what confronts them. Students appear to expect more of university when coming direct from school and find that contact time with staff is lower than expected. One student in a Russell Group university told me that he "was bored with only one essay per week and three hours teaching". Another noted that he had to work "double shifts" at a well known hotel in the week before examinations because he "was getting behind with the rent".
Both ends of the financial and time equality spectrum need to be addressed to secure the quality of our universities. I conclude that things are far too complex for all involved; from students, to staff to management and government.
Several questions arise about the system that has evolved.
Why is it all so complex?
Life evolves by going from the less complex to more complex. Some diversity is generated randomly and persists for no apparent reason and some of is selected for or against. It seems that evolutionary theory might be an apt metaphor for the development of Higher Education in the UK. To some observers it seems that government is deliberately generating random diversity to act as 'fodder 'for selection by the market. But it is a false market created by the government itself. To others it looks like a recipe for anarchy and uncertainty that could be destructive.
The main conclusion is that financing of HE differs greatly across the jurisdictions of the UK. There is no rational reason for this and the confusion surrounding the complexities of finding finance for students seems to be in itself a selective factor for widening access.
Have the students changed?
This is yet again another year and another time for students fortunate to have the chance. 2018 sees the arrival of the first of those born in this century. They have been called many things, such as Generation Z, but they are essentially no different to their predecessors.
Staff at Beloit College in Wisconsin, USA have produced a marvellous description of the students they expect to teach from 2018 and to graduate in 2022: 'The Mindset List Class of 2022' . For them "Films have always been distributed on the Internet." and "People loudly conversing with themselves in public are no longer thought to be talking to imaginary friends." . In the USA context "They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too." Closer to home we might add: "They have never known conflict in Northern Ireland" and "they have no concept of a free higher education". They may be the first generation of 'Brexit casualties'.
However, despite changes to the society that we inhabit, one thing remains constant; the students haven't changed. Human evolution does not work that fast! Their reactions and how they naturally adapt and compensate for changes around them do however change with the times. That is what makes humans successful.
Why do we tolerate even one student being disadvantaged through no fault of their own?
Accepting, and indeed tolerating, inequality seems built into the system. A VC of one university told me that they had few students with part-time jobs so it "wasn't a pressing problem". To him maybe but to an individual student it looks like discrimination. In the TEFS submission to the Treasury Committee Student Loans Inquiry, the concept of 'one casualty is one too many' was introduced. The fact that The vast majority of students have no employment when in full-time studies should not persuade us that the minority can be ignored.
Why is social mobility and access to university assessed on the basis of geographical areas and not the individual?
The move from assessing the background of students as individuals from a specific socioeconomic background to their postal address in the so called 'POLAR areas' has profound implications as observed in; Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening. The individual must be at the centre of our policies and must work for all. There has to be a better way than POLAR.
Who gathers the data the informs decisions?
The answer comes as a bigger surprise than expected. Most people think that all government statistics are gathered by a strictly independent agency, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and mostly this is correct. However, it seems that the universities themselves have a bigger stake in the data gathering than people would accept. In The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans ? the fact that the universities themselves own the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) working with a private enterprise is one thing. That, unlike the ONS, HESA is not subject to Freedom of Information is another. This is surely not right!
Who regulates what universities do?
This situation evolved throughout the year from mergers and is now under the auspices of the Office for Students (OfS) and they have a monumental task ahead. Mostly it is generated by the complexities of diverging policies at the individual autonomous institutions. This is, of course, government policy and creates confusion at the outset. It seems that government is pushing responsibility down the line and will fail to lead or regulate. However, perversely, the Acts that underpin the new arrangements give more scope for ministers to interfere and this brings its own dangers with it.
What are the root causes of the attainment gap between rich and poor students?
It seems there are multiple reasons explored in many quarters. Mostly they skirt around the obvious point that rich students have more resource and more time to study and always did have from birth. In 'The Betrayal of a Generation of Poorer Young People at University' TEFS looked at some more obvious reasons.
Why is the Auger review being delayed?
The Department for Education review of Post-18 Education, led by the financial expert, Philip Auger, seemed a fresh start and like many others, TEFS made a submission on behalf of students TEFS Submission to DfE post-18 education review. A House of Lords report this summer offered further hope but came to the conclusion that the student loan system was a "fiscal illusion". It seems that this optimism was short lived and it will be delayed. The reason is that a review of the funding of universities is in place and is likely to burst The Great University Finance ‘Bubble’.
Why is the social mobility gap in the UK stubbornly staying the same?
It seems that failure to address the underlying causes by government is the main cause. The notion that more students going to university will somehow reverse this situation is a myth: Is the Government admitting to failure of its Social Mobility Measures?: The progress in ten years.
Who is leading the way?
The answer seems to be that no one is leading. A simple conclusion that seems to have eluded many. Instead we have a good example of the Blame Game on display. One assumes that the newly formed Office for Students is leading the way after consuming many separate agencies. However, it may be simply setting out copious demands without taking any responsibility. After integrity, responsibility is the next demand of leadership.
I started with a notion that any equality agenda should be built upon a simple platform. That is that all students get the same chance to study without hinderance or obstacles. Poor background, family and carer commitments, race and disability should not affect the outcome. This idea came from years of teaching students where it was obvious that some were struggling because of family and other problems such as time and finance. Many myths abound and these seem to come from a 'middle class' lobby that is inherently self perpetuating. The idea that increasing the number of university students will improve social mobility is one such myth. There are many more students but they are mostly the ones that can afford it. Most of the staff teaching them, in turn, come from richer backgrounds and breaking this cycle will not be easy. They promulgate the notion that setting a cap on numbers is a bad thing out of self interest. But little reason is given other than deploying a false logic that it might not help widening access. A cap on numbers is not logically linked to widening access for poorer students. Setting optimal numbers is the responsibility of government and this doesn't not necessarily have to be a low number surely. But so too is ensuring fairness in access to poorer students. These are two are separate responsibilities.
The sector is littered with ideas of poorer students not being accepted or not 'fitting in' because of their economic or ethnic background or their disability. The emphasis seems always to be to support them to make sure that they fit in by asking them to change and disguise themselves as part of the richer majority. This is perverse and insults any intelligent but poor student who cannot fit in that easily. Unlikely if they are serving their richer peers at the bar or restaurant. The converse might be considered a better option. Concentrate on the majority and accept that there is instead a need to educate all students to be understanding and tolerant of their peers.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.