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A new government, austerity children and an old joke

The Government started quickly on its Brexit journey this week with a Queen’s speech and a modified Brexit Bill today that will guarantee a complete break from the EU at the end of 2020. We should be very concerned that the removal of the protection of workers rights from the modified bill is setting the tone for what is to come. Many young people will be very worried about building a career in a USA style ‘hire and fire’ economy. Meanwhile, the Government seems complacent about the inequalities inherent in our university education whilst worrying more about its ‘sustainability’. The promise of “better value for students” and a “sustainable model” implies that neither is in place from the previous Government. The ghost of Christmas future looks very much like Augar.

Best and fairest HE system in the world? Meet the new boss.

Little change to the Government’s approach to Universities is expected for some time. The reappointment of Chris Skidmore to the position as Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation tends to confirm this. His
statement on Twitter below sums up the idea that the government is somewhat blind to the problems of fairness and equality.
The idea that a university system, geared to elite universities and independent schools, is considered to be ‘fair’ becomes ludicrous. Also, the idea that so-called ‘disadvantaged’ students get an equal chance is easily challenged.

Yet the Queen’s speech and associated briefing notes hint that the Augar report may be partially resurrected. There is an admission that the system developed by previous Conservative Governments is neither ‘sustainable’ or ‘good value for money’. Therefore, something must give way soon and Augar is hovering in the wings. Sceptics might believe that a more elite system for the advantaged with lower fees will emerge. The rest might have to settle for more Further Education or a ‘right education’ to achieve the object of ‘best access for disadvantaged young people’.

“We are committed to making sure that higher education funding reflects a sustainable model that supports high quality provision, maintaining our world-leading reputation for higher education and delivering value for money for both students and the taxpayer. We want to ensure we deliver better value for students in post-18 education, have more options that offer the right education for each individual, and provide the best access for disadvantaged young people.”

How fair is our HE system?

The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2019 Chapter 6: Widening Access and Participation was released this week. The headline boasted that there was a ‘Record entry rate for the most disadvantaged 18-year-olds at 21%’. Indeed, on the surface, this seems to be a positive trend as illustrated in Figure 1.

But the emphasis on POLAR data and acceptances at university from the Quintile 1 geographic areas acts as a smokescreen for the universities. Since POLAR is a postcode measure, based upon the rates of participation, it should not be used as a proxy for ‘disadvantage’. Yet the term ‘disadvantage’ is used throughout. The clue might be in the name ‘Participation Of Local AReas’.

A different system is used in Scotland. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation or SIMD. This breaks down into much smaller geographical areas on the basis of several criteria with the aim of “Identifying all people who are deprived in Scotland – not everyone who is deprived lives in a deprived area”. As a result, the data from Scotland doesn’t look as rosy with only 13.3% students from SIMD Quintile 1 areas. If universities set targets for recruiting from the larger POLAR areas, then ‘widening access’ may simply be recruitment by sending out a ‘posse’ to round up the more advantaged students.

Last week, a timely paper was published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) that emphasised the role the lower tariff universities (lower grades needed for entry) play in widening access. HEPI suggests that it could take a century to hit the latest official university access targets in their hard-hitting policy document ‘Social mobility and elite universities’. They show that most of the ‘heavy lifting’ on widening access is done by the lower tariff institutions such as the post- 92 universities. Fewer students from low participation areas can access higher tariff and ‘elite’ Russell Group universities. Even UCAS admits that students from POLAR Quintile 5 areas are 5.27 times more likely go to these universities than their POLAR Quintile 1 friends. Conversely, the ratio is almost 1:1 at many lower tariff universities.

This is not a new idea. Last year TEFS showed clearly that the post-92 universities admit the most students from POLAR Quintile 1 areas and do most of the ‘heavy lifting’. Indeed, little has changed since 2007 and TEFS calculated that it would take over 200 hundred years up to 2204AD to reach access parity for these students. See (TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’.). The government must make radical changes to the system to achieve anything near to fair access.

Remove the POLAR blinkers: A more realistic view is needed.

Despite UCAS putting out misleading headlines about improvements in widening access, through an emphasis on POLAR methodology, they have also started to look at other measures for England. Since 2015, UCAS has introduced its multiple equality measure (MEM) to get a more realistic picture. MEM adds individual characteristics such as sex, ethnic group, secondary education school, income background, means-tested benefits and free school meals to the geographical POLAR measure. The result is a much more focused view. UCAS will release the latest data on the MEM in January 2020 and this will show if any real progress is being made. In the meantime, the last report from January of this year reveals much more is needed. Figure 2 shows that there is an alarming 7.4% gap between POLAR4 Quintile 1 (green line from Figure 1) access and MEM Quintile 1 access. (blue line).

This conclusion on entrenched widening access was further reinforced by the Department for Education (DfE) in its detailed report ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education, England, 2017/18 age cohort – Official Statistics’, also released this week. In terms of the percentage gap in students who had free school meals (FSM) and non-FSM students increased to 18.6% in 2017/8 from 17.7% the year before. The very few students from POLAR 1 Quintile 1 areas accessing high tariff universities is highlighted. However, beware of direct comparison with UCAS data as the DfE data relates to state-funded and special school pupils only, whereas the UCAS figures include students who attended other types of school.

Children of austerity.

With the Government calling for ‘levelling up’ through ‘better infrastructure, education and science’, there might be some recognition that the educational field is not a level one in the first place. Indeed, this situation can only be the fault of the Conservative government and their austerity policies. Much of the recent and current progress in widening access to universities is caused by the follow-through of students who were educated years earlier under a different regime. The current entry to university was at primary school between around 2005 and 2010. From now on, we might see a rise in the number of ‘austerity children’ who started school during that period. This will become a problem since the impact of government cuts to benefits has been exacerbated by the introduction of universal credit (Welfare Reform Act 2012 – Universal Credit. The TUC concluded in November that ‘Child poverty in working households up by 800,000 since 2010’. This was based upon National Statistics data ‘Households below average income: 1994/95 to 2017/18’. Indeed, a UK parliament Research Briefing in September, Poverty in the UK: statistics concluded that in 2017/8 “3.0 million children were in relative low income BHC (before housing costs) (22% of children), up 400,000 from the year before”.

Many families with children have been impacted by the Universal credit roll-out from 2016 onwards. The latest figures show that the number of people on universal credit is rising very fast and was at 2.3 million in July compared to 1.0 million a year earlier. The impact on child poverty is obvious and visible. A UN report the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights this year highlighted the shortcomings of universal credit and noted that “There is a striking and almost complete disconnect between the picture painted by the Government…. and what people across the country told the Special Rapporteur”.

The ‘Poverty in the UK: statistics’ report for parliament itself accepts conclusions from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a prediction of rising child poverty and the Resolution Foundation's finding that child poverty is likely to rise without “serious new spending or the cancellation of planned cuts”. But many will not be aware of the rules of universal credit that punish the ‘third child’ in a family. In ‘Universal Credit: support for a maximum of 2 children: information for claimants’. It states that “Universal Credit will no longer pay you an additional amount for a third or subsequent child born on or after 6 April 2017”. This restriction is a blatant and cynical act of social engineering. The current government has a long way to go to repair the damage. Meanwhile the full impact of child poverty on attainment and university access by the ‘austerity children’ has yet to be felt.

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


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