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Student Inequality, Rosseau and Revolution: All in one week.

This week brought further activity in anticipation of the imminent release of the Augar Review. Yet the Times Higher Education (Augar review caught in tussle over timing and Treasury control February 13, 2019) has inserted a small spanner in the works by suggesting that it will be delayed. The reason for this being a possibility, or even likely, is the pressing need for a new government spending review this summer. The previous plan expires and, like it or not, a new plan must emerge with some urgency. But the uncertainties of Brexit mean that there must be several different versions stuck in the pipeline. However, TEFs (18th January 2019 ‘Things can only get better? Dream on.’) has suggested that the timing of Augar is not so important since the government may be obliged to present a short-term and interim spending plan that takes in Augar, Brexit and the chaos that will ensue. Delaying Agar and then cementing it into the spending review, with no feedback from students and universities alike, would be a disastrous mistake on a par with delaying Brexit to the last minute. Ironically, for university managements it would be a dose of their own medicine as it resembles their own consultations that simply announce what is already decided and dress it up as ‘consultation’ with statements like ‘that’s you consulted’. To them, ‘feedback’ is the screeching sound you get if you accidently move the input too close to the output.

Two other observations and inputs this week were a valuable report from NEON (the National Education Opportunities Network) that pulls no punches on the inequalities that exist in university access. When placed alongside a response to the Education Secretary by Simon Marginson of Oxford University, that was published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), it begins to look like we are about to ignite the fuel of a revolution.

The realities exposed in the NEON report.

The NEON report, ‘Working Class Heroes – Understanding access to higher education for white students from lower socio-economic backgrounds’ highlights the very low proportion of poor white students accessing our universities; and the elite universities in particular. It focusses on white students from low participation neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods are classified using the POLAR (Participation Of Local Areas) methodology that TEFS has been highly critical of in the past (see TEFS 6th April 2018 ‘Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening’). The NEON study adds strength to the argument that using POLAR methodology hides to a great extent the inequalities experienced by individuals and, in this case, the poorer white students. NEON points out that participation from areas classified by POLAR is now the only meaningful data by which compare universities. They use recent UCAS data related to POLAR classifications to illustrate the inequalities. Those that do make it to a university are mostly in the post-92 institutions and they are almost extinct in the other universities. Instead, they make up a very high proportion of those entering Further Education Colleges. 

NEON also cites information relating to the incredibly low participation of poor white students that needed free school meals, “White young people in receipt of free school meals are the least likely, next to those from Gypsy/Roma backgrounds, of any group to enter HE.” It all points to a wider disparity for white students from poorer families that is clearly missed by looking at overall participation in higher education by students from POLAR Quintile one areas (the lowest participation areas overall). POLAR hides many problems that the government and universities prefer to ignore. Indeed, the NEON survey in the report shows that most universities are not setting targets for helping poor white students. We will have to see if practical suggestions to remedy this will be considered in Augar. Like TEFS, NEON calls for consideration of individuals and notes that, “It is essential that either we move beyond the existing POLAR to a more multi-faceted measure.” With the data handling capacity that we now have, there is no excuse to prevent this. The NEON solution is realistic and possible. Use better data and methodology than POLAR and set more specific targets for all universities. 

From working class heroes to Rousseau and revolution.

It could be that, in ignoring the obvious glaring disparities in our education system, those that benefit from elite universities are fearful that poor white students, sustained by free school meals might read the works of Rosseau. Not such a bad thing in my view.

Enter Simon Marginson from Oxford University into the fray. His eloquent offering to HEPI is well worth a read. With ‘Three ways a higher education system can push towards more equal opportunity’ he provides a dispassionate and philosophical analysis of the root causes of the inequalities in access to universities. Taken with the NEON study, it all comes together well. However, he falls into the trap of dangerous defeatism with “Given that family inequalities will persist, there are three main moves that an education system can make, in pushing towards more equal opportunity”. Many will surely question why such inequalities must persist in our society; especially if they entrench disadvantage over many generations and deny fair access to the education that can provide another way out. Admitting as much is hopeless defeatism and fails to get to the root of inequality. The suggestions, including contextualised admissions, are fair enough but they are predicated upon inherent unfairness persisting.

Marginson is also fond of sporting metaphors such as a ‘level playing field’ and particularly the game of association football when he refers to those that “pull further away from the pack, like rich clubs in the Premier League”. If he has played competitively at association football he will be aware that accepting defeat, as Marginson appears to have done at the outset, against a higher ranked team is never an option. The middle-class notion of it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that matters does not convince a working-class sensibility. Instead, accepting that all is fair, there only eleven of them after all, and working out ways to slow them down and counter attack to win is the only game plan. However, if the middle-class team shows up with fifteen players and changes the handball rule, then I imagine a fight might break out. The level of the pitch is a minor distraction in this scenario.

Indeed, earlier in the piece Marginson refers to the work of Rousseau and his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality from 1754. This was clearly a deliberate and provocative citation. This former white student from a poor family background has read and considered what Rousseau had to say. Rousseau might have considered inequality to be inevitable in a civil society with “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, "This is mine," and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Indeed, this may have also convinced him of the role of natural selection in human society. But those that started the French Revolution were not so deterred and were spurred on and determined to make changes. Rousseau never lived long enough to witness the French Revolution and the horrors of a pan-European war. Those in power might have been well advised to consider his analysis more carefully. Perhaps Marginson, and indeed myself and many others, will be well gone before a new revolution happens. But history must have convinced us that accepting defeat now on challenging the roots of inequality was never an option.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.



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