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Universities Minister retreats a bit on social mobility

Michelle Donelan spoke to the ‘Fifth Festival of Education’ hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) at Buckingham University earlier today. In her evidence at the Commons Education committee, she caused outrage when she signalled a removal of targets with “it doesn’t matter” about which groups go to university. Today she retreated a bit with the insertion of “just” into "it is too simplistic to just look at the numbers”. But it seems that other changes, such as two year and part-time “modular provision”, are being planned with universities doing more to “raise standards in schools”. Donelan’s own life experience means that, when putting “students and their needs and career ambitions first”, she omits supporting the obvious time and resources that disadvantaged students need. This apparent blind spot is beginning to appear more like deliberately looking the other way.



The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, gave a belated online address to the participants of the Fifth Festival of Higher Education hosted by The University of Buckingham and Pearson for The Higher Education Policy Institute this morning. The main event was days ago on the 7th and 8th of July 2020. A transcript of the address is available at the Department for Education www site ‘Universities Minister speech at Festival of Higher Education’ and participants can access a video via a Microsoft teams link on the Festival www site. However, the presentation is in full here.


Billed as lasting 40 minutes, it came as a surprise that it was only 14 minutes long. There were no questions and many of the issues raised by the earlier Festival Event, along with developments since, were avoided. The presentation had some echoes of her earlier offering at the Commons Education Committee on 15th July. There she told them, “It doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university”.


This had cleverly become today, “So it’s too simplistic to just look at the numbers of a group going to university”



A small but subtle change by inserting the word ‘just’ was probably done to offset the torrent of criticism for the earlier comment. But the hope is that numbers and targets, better assessed than by simply using the crude POLAR methodology (see *NOTE below) will be developed alongside more support  for individual students.



Stretching credibility. 

Donelan laid out her credentials with “I was the first in my family to go to university. So, I know directly the power of university to open up opportunities and to transform lives”. Maybe, but I wonder how her experience studying History and Politics at York University, under a low fee Labour regime, matches the experiences of many disadvantaged students today. Had she indicated that she had little or no family support, and worked in a part-time job for 20 hours per week, then it would have seemed more credible. Instead, Donelan comes from Whitley in comfortable rural Cheshire, a POLAR4 Quintile 5 area where most of those leaving school attend a university. It is in the well-healed Tatton constituency that has only 1.9% of its post-codes in the POLAR4 lower participation Quintile 1. She is now MP for the Chippenham constituency in rural Wiltshire where only 5.6% of the postcodes are in Quintile 1. 

Defining true ‘Social Mobility’. 

Apparently, her vision is one of “True social mobility is when we put students and their needs and career ambitions first". This is a fair point, but the devil might be in the detail of what is proposed in terms of action. She also stated that “True social mobility is not getting them to the door, it’s getting them to the finish line of a high quality course that will lead them to a graduate job”. This was in the context of more BAME students dropping out or not doing as well as others. But it is obvious that ‘getting through the door’ is the critical first step and there are many educational and disadvantage barriers in the way. Alleviating poverty at home, poor diet and fear of homelessness might be good starting points. Students cannot live by aspiration alone.

What was missing.

The address did not give any indication that real support for students would be on the cards. Instead, it seems that the policy of supporting the ‘elite’ research universities will continue whilst student support takes a back seat (see TEFS 27th June 2020 ‘Bailout for research universities: Student support on hold’). The barriers to getting to university, and then succeeding, are often simply ones of time and resources. This needs to be addressed, but there was no indication that any more support for students will be forthcoming. Instead, the approach to improving access to universities continues to revolve around universities “doing even more to raise standards and aspiration in schools”. This was in the context of paraphrasing the Robbins Committee on Higher Education Report, 1963 with “University was always my dream and it transformed my career options – and I want this option to be open to all those qualified by ability and attainment”.

This signals that raising attainment will be the main, perhaps only, strategy to improve access to universities. Asking universities to do more in this sphere seems strange when it will really needs more resources at all levels. Unfortunately, the idea of contextual admissions was not mentioned and is probably not planned. It means that independent schools, and schools in advantaged catchment areas such as Tatton and Chippenham, will retain the upper hand. Those with greater advantages in time and resources will become further entrenched in the university career track to success. Others will find they are forced down a different path.

Improving standards in schools. 

The task of going down the route of improving attainment for disadvantaged students in schools is a monumental one. The unfair divergence in attainment in different schools is so embedded in the system that calculated A-Level results this year are based upon accounting for the variability of schools within different catchment areas. The exams regulator, Ofqual in its Summer Symposium 2020, revealed this afternoon more detail of how this is being done. It appears that teachers predicted grades will not be followed since “If centre assessment grades were not statistically standardised, we would see results for 2020 that were, on average, 12 percentage points better than in 2019 at A level”. No scope for improvement this year is signalled with “Improvement on such a scale in a single year has never occurred and to allow it would significantly undermine the value of these grades for students”. The impact on disadvantaged students, by pegging back grades in many schools, will be looked at very critically this year. It was established by the Sutton Trust in 2017 with ‘Rules of the Game’ that “high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted”. The effect may be magnified this year for many students without access to an actual exam to prove the predictions wrong.

Indications of policy to come.

Other snippets of potential policy changes were slipped into the address. On conditional unconditional offers, Donelan said that “I want to see the practice ending for good”. Indeed, this is needed and welcome. However, there was no clue about what the associated practice of restricting student numbers might bring.

The centuries old long-standing convention of a three-year degree came under attack with “Sadly, the three-year bachelor’s degree has increasingly become the predominant mode of study”. She acknowledged that students often work whilst at university. But saying that they “like to earn while they learn” displays a very disturbing and fundamental lack of understanding. They don’t’ like it, they have little choice. As for “sadly”, I am not sure what to make of that.  She promised that she was determined to look at “how we can do more as a Government to enable universities to offer more modular provision”. However, it seems to herald a new era of part-time provision that the Russell group universities will no doubt ignore or oppose. 

What must be done?

The whole approach of the government appears to show that support for the elite research universities will be the top priority. The so called ‘Restructuring Regime’ is not designed to support students per se, even though Donelan states “In doing so, we will be acting to support students” There is a fanciful assumption that universities will somehow improve standards in schools and support students under financial hardship. There is no hint of addressing the inequalities in time and resources available to many students in our universities. It is indeed a ‘blind spot’ or, more likely at this stage, being deliberately ignored (see TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’).

Donelan must take time to meet with students who struggle with little or no family support behind them. This was relatively easy in the recent pre-COVID past. Just by going to any hospitality establishment in any UK city and asking the member of staff serving you. I have met and interviewed many such people. With few jobs available since the COVID-19 lock-down, this has become a crisis for them. 

Working with partners the charity Stand Alone, that supports students estranged form family, released the results of survey of such students in April ‘Supporting care-experienced and estranged students in higher education – responding to Covid-19’. With no job and no access to universal credit, 62% said that the ability to earn money was one of their main concerns and and 50% said they were worried about getting essential supplies and/or food. Help from university and accommodation in the summer months appears to be patchy. Another more recent report released this week confirms the plight of many students lacking family support with 'I'm Already Falling'. Only a shocking 7% are confident they can pay their bills and 87% were in insecure jobs and have not been able to access government schemes such as furlough. 

An article in the Guardian from TEFS, 'University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out' reported Freedom of Information responses from eighty universities around the UK about student working hours and help available. This prompted an open letter to the university ministers in each of the UK jurisdictions (See TEFS 19th June 2020 ‘Open Letter to UK Government Ministers - taskforce on student support urgently needed’). Donelan’s counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland responded quickly and positively. There has been no acknowledgement or response from either Donelan or Williamson at this stage. It surely indicates the low priority placed on helping such students.

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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