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"It doesn't matter about looking at which groups don't get to university"

The title is the astounding answer the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, gave to a simple question about helping disadvantaged students in the COVID-19 crisis earlier today. The corollary is simple to deduce, it matters about looking at which groups do get into university. This heralds a novel approach to a redefined ‘social mobility’ agenda in which the idea of setting access targets for disadvantaged students in universities will be abandoned. It caused some confusion to those present and comes on top of the decision to abandon the idea of getting 50% of young people into university that was first proposed over 20 years ago. It marks a low point in promoting universities as drivers of social mobility and seems to redefine the chances for a new generation of young people. These are ‘Generation Alpha’ who were born this century and will be setting out in an economy that will have to be rebooted or rebuilt. The government’s vision is those with advantages will be given priority. Because widening access has seen little improvement in the last ten years does not mean it is alright to bulldoze over the evidence. So much for levelling up.

The Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, was questioned by the Education Select Committee earlier today and was let off very lightly indeed. She fielded the relatively gentle and benign questions in an online session lasting around 90 minutes. Much of the evidence revolved around online provision and ‘blended learning’ as if it were a given that this would happen. She was sure that all universities were doing as Cambridge was and putting lectures online whilst tutorials remained face-to-face. Tough questions were not asked about what was planned if there were to be more local or general lockdowns imposed before Christmas. The likelihood is very high as local lockdowns are already accelerating and are not providing much optimism. The danger of a meltdown in university provision spreading from institution to institution is a real and present danger. The Academy of Medical Sciences report ‘Preparing for a challenging winter 2020/21’ came out yesterday and highlighted the urgent need to make preparations. Student accommodation is seen as high risk and the report notes that “Separate quarantining should be considered for high-risk populations (e.g. hostels for the homeless and student accommodation” It would be good to know if the government had a contingency plan. The important issue of mental health of vulnerable students was addressed in the evidence session but there was little reassurance that student support services were geared to the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis when it worsens. The developing unemployment situation will affect many students and their families, and this was not pressed home hard enough. Some clips from the evidence session that relate to disadvantaged students are below. The complete session is available on Parliamentary TV ‘Education Committee Wednesday 15 July 2020’

Increasing numbers of disadvantage students

TEFS was, of course, interested in what additional support is planned for ’disadvantaged’ students whose number is bound to increase sharply as more unemployment grips the country. However, tough questions on this topic were not a major part of the session and chances were missed to press Donelan on what is planned as opposed to what had been done recently. TEFS has highlighted, through a Freedom of Information request, that most universities have little idea how many of their students rely on income from part-time jobs (see Guardian article 'University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out' and TEFS 26th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’.) Their number will surely rise in the coming year and hardship funds should be planned now to match the crisis coming. 

TEFS has written to the Ministers responsible in each of the UK jurisdictions about the upcoming crisis (see TEFS 19th June 2020 ‘Open Letter to UK Government Ministers - taskforce on student support urgently needed’. Positive responses were quickly received from those in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Nothing from Westminster suggests it is still a blind spot or being ignored.

Diverting resources from student premium funds.

The redoubtable Ian Mearns (Labour) did, however, ask a key question about financial support for disadvantaged students because of the COVID-19 crisis. Donelan totally failed to indicate that anything was being planned to help students in the coming year, only that £23 million per month was made available in April, May, June and July. 

Donelan’s answer was a poor one. The simple fact is that some funds have been diverted from existing student premium funds is outlined in the government’s ‘Support package for higher education providers and students’ that says:

“We have also worked with the OfS to enable providers to draw upon existing funding to increase hardship funds and support disadvantaged students impacted by COVID-19. As a result, providers will be able to use the funding, totalling £46m across April and May, towards student hardship funds and mental health support, as well as to support providers’ access and participation plans”

The existing funding comes from the ‘Student Premium Fund’ that amounts to “£337 million to promote greater choice and boost equality of opportunity in higher education”. Some of the money released will have been diverted away from outreach activities such as those that promote “partnerships of universities, colleges and others across the country to increase the proportion of young people from disadvantaged areas going into higher education” 

Widening the disadvantage gap.

In answer to another question from Caroline Johnson (Conservative) about groups of disadvantaged students, Donelan recited the familiar mantra that “record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university”. This conveniently hides the simple fact that there have been only marginal gains in the proportion of students from low participation areas entering our universities. Furthermore, this is largely not a burden that has been borne by the elite Russell Group universities. This slow rate of progress means that the gap in access between those from wealthier areas and those from the low access poorer areas will not reach parity for many years (see TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’). Her answer could easily be seen in most quarters as blatantly misleading. 

Donelan then went onto utter the headline quotation:

“It doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university”

- thereby undoing years of effort to plug the access gap between the most and least advantaged. To add insult to injury, she stressed that “It’s all about making sure that those groups that do go complete and leads to graduate jobs” and “we need to move away from targets”. Disadvantaged groups do not matter as much as getting places and jobs for more advantaged. She did stress that it was all about supporting individuals. However, abandoning access targets for disadvantaged groups is not logically justified by helping individuals that make it into the university club. Instead, there should be much more effort made to increase the proportion of disadvantaged students as ‘individuals’ and not just by postcode POLAR Classification that has been much criticised (see *NOTE below and TEFS 6th April 2018 ‘Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening’ and 4th October 2019 ‘From POLAR to TUNDRA and why individuals matter’). This means setting targets for numbers of disadvantaged students as ‘individuals’ not bulldozing over the whole idea of targets to hide them.

A somewhat surprised Johnson then asked, “So does that mean that no university will be required to have a target of any particular demographic group of students?”

This was met by reference to “access and participation plans” just launched for the next five years and accountable to the Office for Students. The answer was inconsistent with the earlier comments and obviously confused the committee.

Setting a trap.

The confusion was such that Ian Mearns added at the end that he was confused about what she meant by ‘Social Mobility’ that “works for individuals and doesn’t work for groups”. He asked her to write to the committee to explain what she means. The trap was set and she agreed. It will make for interesting reading. Donelan emphasised that “there was too much emphasis on getting students to the door of universities and not enough on completion rates and graduate outcomes”. The obvious logic is that you cannot have one without the other. You cannot make a horse drink if you don’t lead it to the water in the first place.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

*NOTE. POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. From the 2018/19 publication onwards, the low participation data uses the updated POLAR4 classification. The POLAR4 data is calculated in a different way to previous POLAR mappings and therefore the two datasets are not strictly comparable. For time series purposes, the indicators for 2015/16 to 2017/18 have been produced using both POLAR3 and POLAR4 data. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions.


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