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Higher education and social justice – should we care?

November 15, 2010 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

Every once in a while I shamelessly tap my readers’ knowledge for an upcoming speech. This week I am speaking in London on the topic of ‘the role of higher education in delivering a more equal society’.

What I say may be controversial, so if I’ve got this wrong please prevent me annoying people and making a fool of myself…

My top line is that HE doesn’t have much of a role in delivering a more equal society.

For two reasons:

First, the real damage to social inclusion and mobility happens way before young people get to university (1-5 and 11-14 are the key ages). Indeed if a person from a deprived background manages to get decent ‘A’ levels and a place in HE they are pretty much secure on a higher rung of the ladder, even if they do have a lot of debt to pay back.

Second, if universities really did want to make a difference it would mean them being more committed and much bolder than virtually any of them are at present. Instead most universities, especially the elite ones, see widening access as part corporate social responsibility (in other words at the margins of their core activity) and part regulatory burden.

This is, in part, why I won’t be going on any demos – let alone smashing any windows – over the new proposals for student finance. There are two main ways we block access to HE for poorer students who could gain from a degree course; making it too expensive or capping the number of places. With maintenance grants and progressive loan payback I think the Coalition has done what is can to minimise the first risk. But without reform the second would be much greater – already this year we are seeing tens of thousands of students who have done reasonably well in their A levels being denied a place. (I must have missed it but when exactly was the national NUS demo to protest at the abolition of educational maintenance allowances?)    

Of course, some universities have widening participation at their core. These tend to be inner-city former polytechnics and who knows how they will fare under the new funding regime. I admire these institutions but, while they will provide an important route for first generation undergraduates, the worry must be that they will also have their status diminished so that the degrees people receive offer only a small advantage in the labour market (which, in the context of higher fees, means their whole business case may be vulnerable).    

So what kind of things could elite and middle ranking universities do to make me think they were more important to social justice?

They could use their teaching and research capacity as a major lever for social inclusion in their home towns. I remember asking the vice chancellor of a university which has attracted (at huge expense) one of the world’s leading experts on social capital how they were applying his skills to the issue of social capacity in the deprived parts of their city. I might as well have asked how much time Chelsea players spent coaching kids in their local park.

They could use their pulling power to tackle social segregation in the school system. How would it be, for example, if Oxford promised ten bursary-funded places for the  top achieving pupils in each of the ten most deprived comprehensives within 50 miles of the city and then worked with the pupils from GCSE on to ensure they fitted in and were supported. Imagine the impact on the schools and imagine the way middle class parents would start clamouring to get their kids into the schools (I first heard this idea from Peter Wilby).

Or how about universities being Academy sponsors to primary and secondary schools in deprived areas (I think some of this happens but I’m not sure how widespread it is) and committing to ambitious targets for pupils getting university places.

Overall, the most fruitful avenue for exploring a radically different order of impact for HE on social justice might come from the idea of civic universities (which I discussed a few months ago) – institutions with deep roots and a deep commitment to their locality and all its people. Sadly, unless things have changed a lot since the last time I looked, top universities care about as much for the local poor as supermarket chains do for small independent grocers.



  • Caz

    The national NUS demo against the abolition of EMAs was part of DemoLition last week.

  • Ruth Hogarth

    You must read this article before you give your speech. It is the best article yet written about what Browne’s proposals really mean and while it backs up some of what you are proposing to say, it gives a much more nuanced view of other thoughts you have.
    Best wishes,

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t know about Oxford offering bursaries and coaching/support to children in deprived areas local to that city but I think that Oxford and Cambridge do undertake such work in deprived areas elsewhere eg Tower Hamlets (where I live). I don’t work in the schools here but I am aware from other sources that they work with teachers to identify the brightest kids and offer them support to accustom them to the concept that they are able to get in, how to do it, what to expect (dispelling some of the ‘Brideshead’ myths) and making it feasible – both mentally/emotionally and (I think) financially. Sadly I can’t cite any hard source of evidence for this – you might try contacting the universities in question to ask for more details.

  • Matthew D’Agostino

    I have a lot to say on this topic, but will only address a couple here, which come from my experience in Admissions and as a service-learning director (currently). From my angle at the most inclusive 4 year college in Colorado, we treat this problem as “the buck stops here” issue. That is, we have a great deal of students coming to this college who are not prepared for college, and we have increasingly been rising to meet kind of diversity.

    I agree that by the time students reach higher ed, they have more than not already been sifted into their respective socioeconomic positions, but only from a broad, incredibly macro perspective. Within the working class, I disagree with you that a degree from affordable colleges doesn’t help students, especially within a struggling economy. Right now, a degree from anywhere can mean having a job or not. Students know this, and I think that economists and educators should take stock in this very grassroots and basic of rational-actor indicators.

    So I argue with your very neat, and fatalistic analysis that favors looking for levers of change among sectors of the population or economy without taking a look at change within sectors.

  • G Dash Nelson FRSA

    While I agree almost entirely with your claim that higher education has little effect on broad measures of inequality, I wonder whether a more costly higher education system may drive inequality within the upper decile of the income distribution. In the United States, at least, there is a fair claim to be made that the exploding cost of élite education pushed the exodus into and the acceptance of wildly-paying financial and consulting jobs at the expense of more traditional (and lower paid) professional pursuits. So while higher education may simply retrench the position of the top 10% vis-a-vis the bottom 90%, I suspect there may be some link between an expensive system funded on student debt and a growing gap between the top 1% and the second 9%. And, as it happens, that is where a lot of the growth in statistical inequality has appeared in the past twenty years.

    I should of course conclude this point with the warning that this is a claim which rests, at this point, on hunch rather than on statistical evidence …

  • paul hebden

    Matthew I think there are a number of problems with your argument:

    Firstly you seem to assert a very narrow view of the good provided by a university, whilst simultaneously over playing the university’s role in countering a problem which, in the final analysis, is a fault that is not the university’s creation (for an interesting discussion of the public vs economic uses of the university see a recent piece in the LRB by Stefan Collini
    Secondly, it is by no means clear how your criticism of the corporate attitude of universities to widening access (whilst probably true) can be used as a justification for a lack of solidarity with those who chose to demonstrate. I think you will find that very few vice chancellors were marching last week, I doubt there were any HR employees with a CSR remit attacking Millbank Tower. In fact many would argue that it is the omnipresence of such managerialists that prevents universities from realising the public goods that they ought to be capable of, one of which you emphasise.
    It seemed to me, in fact, that those who did march chose to do so because they want greater access to university education, not less. The majority of the people who march doubtless agree with your sentiment.
    Thirdly, by construing the debate about higher education in crudely instrumental terms (and you are not alone in this) you miss the wider point about the systematic underfunding of ‘economically useless’ but nonetheless important areas of study, most significantly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, as a result of the Browne review.
    As the head of an organisation that must surely in some way be ‘for’ the arts, humanities and social sciences (and not least because I know you to be a thoughtful and valued contributor to public discourse), I find the position you have presented difficult to endorse.
    One is tempted to wonder where the RSA will search to fill its worthy events calendar in future (that events calendar populated by academics with training in the arts, humanities and social sciences), but such an observation would be far too crude.

  • Selina

    Universities can be the delivery agent of social change, one method is simply to bring people together from different backgrounds.

    However, having attended an ‘elite’ university, this at times made people feel they were artificially bought together. The cultural gap between young people by the time they had reached university were alarmingly wide and as you mention ‘social mobility’ happens long before university. Secondly universities do not regard their own role as social glue for failed societies, they are proud first and foremost for being ‘centres of excellence, research etc’. This is particularly true of the elite universities.
    Other ways for universities to increase SM, coule be by reaching out to the communities they set up in (civic universities as mentioned, great idea) or to encourage a culture of social mobility within the university through voluntary work/sporting events/commmunity events

    The social equality between people is only one of many characteristics dividing students, elitism rears its head between the discipline students elect to follow, where the choose to reside, where they choose to drink, which sport they choose etc.

    Many of the universities in the large cities across the country have residence in poorer areas, yet they remain wholly ignorant of the communities they set up in. Very few encourage graduates to work outside London, which is one reason why competition amongst graduates in the SE remains so high, along with the salaries. Universities by their nature encourage the individual accumulation of wealth, establishing relationships with large multinationals/corporations and the respective career services. Most university career fairs are now filled with large multi-nationals who reiterate any amount of social responsibility as a regulatory issue, of tokenistic value.

    If the main goal of university is to feed large business, with little or no regard for social mobility amongst graduates, it is little surprise that the culture of social equality is lacking in both aspiring graduates and the careers they ultimately choose.

  • Gordon Finlayson

    Dear Matthew,

    Its extremely disappointing to see you aligning yourself with the enemies of universities, who are frankly more interested in using the stick of social inclusion or ‘democratisation’ as a cloak to throw over the expediency of massive cuts in public spending.

    No-one would disagree that Universities ought, among other things, to strive to be as socially inclusive as possible, given their primary aims of teaching and research. That said, it is quite another thing to claim that Universities ought to “deliver (sic) social inclusion” as if this were their sole responsibility.
    “They could use their teaching and research capacity as a major lever for social inclusion in their home towns.”
    How might it have afffected the research of, say, Alan Turing, or Radushkevich and Lukyanovich, if they were to have had uppermost in their mind the aim of delivering social inclusion, rather than the formalization of the algorithm or the discovery of carbon nanotubes. In the final analysis knowledge is a good from which everyone benefits. If universities are turned into training institutions designed to skill up pupils whom schools have failed to teach relevant skills, they will soon cease to be founts of knowledge, education and good citizenship.
    At the moment the best they can do is to educate the kind of people who go on to work in your organisation, and others like it, or – in the case of one of my present students – in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

    That said, I agree that universities “don’t have much of a role in delivering a more equal society.” That is because to participate in Higher education you have already to have been educated to a reasonably high level. But, if that is right, your criticism is misplaced. The roots of social exclusion go deeper, and set in earlier, and Universities cannot be expected to reverse the trend directly through outreach programmes or whatever. (Sure, they could do better than they do, by working together with schools. But Oxford’s offering 100 bursaries to the local poor is hardly going to solve the problem of social justice.) The truth is that, though they could do better, universities come on the scene too late to do this, and anyway it is not their job. And, moreover, they do a lot of good in other more indirect and diffuse ways (not just to their localities).

    My main problem is your poor judgment. Politics is about seizing the right moment. This is not the moment to be attacking universities or HE institutions. That is a craven and cowardly act, which is obviously designed to curry favour with bankers, politicians, corporate fat cats and readers of the Daily Telegraph.

    Univeristies are not at all like Supermarkets, trying to put local grocers out of business. On the contrary, they are still, for the moment, not-for-profit organisations providing a public good – education. In attacking them, you are siding with those who want to change that, and to turn them into retail outlets for vocational skills training.

  • Martin

    I think there’s an unfortunate logical fallacy at the head of this. You suggest, first, that your “top line is that HE doesn’t have much of a role in delivering a more equal society.” The first reason is, I think, to a limited extent, sound: I agree totally that there’s much more to be done societally to enable social mobility at younger ages. The second is more of a problem: “if universities really did want to make a difference it would mean them being more committed and much bolder than virtually any of them are at present”. This presumes that what universities *think* they’re doing (or aim to do) *is* what they’re doing. I’d argue that, on the contrary, whether universities intend (as if universities were *one* thing that could have intent anyway!) to be engines of social mobility or not, that is nevertheless something that they do. This is another example, I think, of looking for ‘pure instrumentality’ when, in truth, there’s a great deal more going on which is much harder to quantify.

    In respect of one of the other questions you raise about going into the community, at every university where I’ve worked or studied (5 at the current count!), there’s been a thriving Volunteer Unit doing just that. Increasingly, these volunteer activities are also being integrated into the curriculum so that students not only have an opportunity to *do* work with their local communities, but also to reflect on what that work might mean (for them personally and for whatever body or individuals they’ve worked with). It may well be that the VC you spoke with wasn’t directly aware of this sort of work (indeed, maybe the VC was the wrong person to ask!), but it certainly *is* going on.

  • Karl Hallam

    I think there is a danger in not stating the broader intrinsic case for higher education. Sport and the the arts have shot themselves in the foot by obsessing with the instrumental, as it is always difficult to demonstrate the benefits.
    As a still rich country we either value education, sport, arts or not. The 3rd sector is currently running around like a headless chicken trying to prove the worth of what it does too.
    Mmmm, not the most coherent post and not strictly on topic, apologies. What I did want to suggest is reading our ex-colleagues 2002 ippr press release (below). I wonder if the now current head of the Russell Group still agrees with this?

    ippr Press Release 2002
    Responding to the Comprehensive Spending Review ippr Senior Research Fellow Wendy Piatt said:
    “We’re delighted with the news that Education Maintenance Allowances are to be extended across the country by 2004. This idea, a key plank of the ippr’s student support proposals, has led to a significant increase in staying-on rates at schools in those areas where it has been trialed.

    “We would like to see EMAs extended to Higher Education and adults in Further Education as a way of enabling those from lower income backgrounds to continue in education beyond 18.

    “One stream-lined model of support in the learning and skills sector and higher education would be much more reassuring to those students who are uncertain and wary of the costs of studying at university and college. The administrative ease and lower delivery costs would be a considerable improvement on the present fragmented and complex regime which may actually be deterring some students. The ‘something for something’ approach which underpins the EMA would also benefit many non-traditional students who may need clearer goals and extra pastoral support”

  • lilly

    perhaps you are absolutely right and should be even more vociforous in this speech. Your top-line appears to be that HE has no role in delivering a more equal (fairer) society.

    My guess is that most of the people behind the current unequal and unfair society have ‘benefited’ from HE. Gap between rich and poor is widening, poverty, armed conflict etc. all increasing. Large numbers of well paid marketers/ spin doctors using their supposed skills to misinform, mislead and manipulate etc. etc.

    I’m also pretty sure that most bankers and financiers have been benefactors of HE, as have most politicians and probably also those who promote the idea of social services via volunteers – while they get well paid- all exposed to HE. Does anyone trust these groups to deliever a fairer more equal society ? Even those who dismiss protests driven by principles of fairness and equality (prefering to skew attention to a broken window) have probably benefited from HE and so will their kids no doubt.

    All these well educated self interested people who have HE in common alongside a leadership role in a truly unfair system and society – which they prop up and milk for their own financial and egotistical benefit.

    So your top line could be extended that evidence points not only to HE not contributing to a more equal society it actually appears to promote the opposite. EIther seriously scrap it or hand its focus completely to a sector of young people who aren’t from the upper/ middle classes in the hope they will combine education with values?

    I’m surprised the RSA aren’t more supportive of young people trying to stand up for fairness and equality – especially as they are likely your future members, no?

  • miscellaneous

    Many of the late 19th/early 20thC civic universities were originally established to meet local industrial and economic needs. as such they were funded by private enterprise, local rates (half a penny on the rates went to the local university!) and student fees. Public funding came in later (gradually crept in in over the first quarter of the 20thC) becuase most of these ‘new’ unviersities could not survive on donations and fees alone. In the 1960s, Robbins put the economic contribution of universities first on his list becuase he said it was a largely unrecognised and undervalued role of HE. the other roles were the developing the powers of the mind, research into new knowledge and creating good citizens. these were seen as the utmost roles of HE. Martha Nussbaum has recently published a book (‘Not for Profit’) saying why we should return to these earlier values of HE. there is a lot we can learn from history!

  • Samuel Taylor

    I’m not Higher Educated, formally, for what it’s worth. I’ve been an employee for most of my adult life. I’ve wandered from computer sales to HVAC installation and sawmill work.

    About 3yrs ago, I lost my internet service rather unexpectedly. I had been involved in some audio book piracy, I will admit it. I failed to pay my $80 for a legitimate copy of “The Historical Jesus” and “Biological Anthropology” and several others published by The Teaching Company.

    TTC does something amazing, in my opinion. They seek out distinguished teachers, who are passionate about their subject. If you’re even vaguely interested in the topic, it is difficult to not keep listening until the wee hours of the AM, because the tone, and passion of the speakers.

    Higher Education suffers from it’s industrialization, in my opinion. For example, we keep our K-12 schools open 5 days a week, force our kids, and particularly our teens, to sit in pheromone filled classrooms, subjected to poorly supervised primate-like social hierarchies and often, uninspired speakers.

    In reality, most classes today could be taken from home. With the exception of test days, or classes requiring lab, practical demonstration of knowledge, sports or music, the student no longer needs to be in the classroom.

    The internet and cable/satellite TV have become ubiquitous. DVR’s are inexpensive and easy to use. What needs to happen is a paradigm shift in how we educate. Student only need to be on campus to take tests, the rest could be done online or via DVD/DVR. With the best, most inspirational and motivational teachers bearing the delivery of the information, and the in-school teachers could focus on individuals. I think this atmosphere would be more conducive to modern life.

    Think of the funds saved in busing and keeping schools open alone.

    On to higher education though. It could easily follow this model. Students could take university level courses, at their own speed, on their own schedule, make it for labs when needed. Even if it took years to complete a single chemistry course, it would open up higher education for all but the most destitute.

    I believe the information RSA is accumulating should be compiled into DVD format, made into TV shows and courses on the internet. It’s vital to the progress of our species for people to learn that the earth is not 6000 years old, and that our minds are not the Towers of Logic and Reason we imagine them to be. Inside of each of is is an easily frightened ape, that has learned to talk and make complicated tools, both mental and physical. Until the average human understands the Human Condition we all share, there will be little progress!

    I’ve also come to believe recently, that there is a narcissistic plague in our political and corporate elites. I don’t mean your high school variety self-importance, I mean people who genuinely are a little “compassionately retarded” if you will. These people thrive in modern money-based societies the way antibiotic resistant bacterium thrive in the human body. They may well be the driving force behind much of the word’s problems since the dawn of civilization.

    A psychological examination should be a prerequisite for CEO-hood or political office.

    But then again, I’m just a Tennessee hillbilly. I don’t have any degrees or alphabet soup to add behind my name. Just semi-educated opinions.

  • Jurate Levina

    The role of higher education is far more fundamental than any of the instrumental purposes that are being talked about, ‘delivering a more equal society’ among them. Its purpose is – in any discipline, and in humanities in particular – to develop skills of independent critical thinking, enabling people to see and understand things for what they are and communicate that vision to others. No Newton or Einstein or Kant could have been without this. Instrumentality comes after and is an unpredictable result of inquisitive and imaginative thinking (hardly anybody here needs elaboration on the scope of ‘instrumental’ possibilities that visions of Newton, Einstein or Kant allowed to develop). Everyday reality is, clearly, more modest than this; but eliminate the ‘uselessness’ of critical thought into the truth of things for its own sake, and society may well end up with no notion of equality nor conviction that it is actually needed, let alone ideas of how to ‘deliver’ it.

    Universities are the bread and butter of a culture, they train people who shape the cultural self-conception of the whole society and sustain its values (such as that of social equality) whatever jobs these people do when they leave (not necessarily that well paid, by the way; and among their jobs is teaching in schools in deprived areas as anywhere else) – this is what universities are ‘delivering’ to society. And elimination of any public interest in enabling them to continue doing this – in process right now as teaching and research funds are being withdrawn virtually altogether (the fee rise, as I understand, only results from this) – is utterly irresponsible. This policy is self-destructive for the whole society, not only for academia, and we should be the last to submit to the faulty thinking in which it is being grounded, let alone support it.

  • Catherine Grant

    I’m with Paul and Gordon above. Civic universities are a nice idea, in some respects – I liked some of your earlier post on them. But you seem to misunderstand that what the government is proposing is not just an increase in university fees for students, as appalling as I believe that to be, but also a massive, and in some cases certainly fatal, cut in public funding for vast swathes of university teaching. There certainly won’t be any funds for the kinds of social and educational experimentation you seem to support. Can I suggest before you finalise your speech you read Professor John Holmwood’s dissection of the figures at this link:

  • Livy

    …if I’ve got this wrong please prevent me annoying people and making a fool of myself…My top line is that HE doesn’t have much of a role in delivering a more equal society.

    Well…you’re only wrong in that it might even be a lot worse than that.

    Overall university participation rates sky rocketed in the late ’80s along with the expansion of higher education but included a much higher share of children with better off parents. The percentage of students rose from 15 to 28% between 1988 and 1992; the proportion of the poorest 20% went from 6 to 7%; the most affluent 20%, from 20 to 37%.

    Lilly’s right, you could feasibly make a case for HE itself contributing to a less equal society. But to be fair, the future probably won’t be as bleak as the late 80s, and if you consider the narrowing gap between students achieving good GCSEs, things could be worse. Newer patterns suggest family background, whether we base that on income or social class, is becoming less important in determining attainment at 16, where the level of A-C results at GCSE has risen sharply and provided greater access to continued study. This has actually increased over the last 20 years from around 40% in the mid 80’s to 60% in 2003.

    Unfortunately, educational inequality tends to revert to phenotype and auto-correct itself for all the egalitarian inspired policy controls we use to try and pump around the life blood. It’s a bit like Alice in Through the Looking Glass when she looks at the trees while running and says: “I wonder if they all move along with us?”. As good GCSEs (and even undergraduate degrees) become more common and unordained by family background, their value in the labour market diminishes – hence the recent creation of new A* qualifications at A Level and a surge in the demand, and therefore take up, of postgraduate degrees by more affluent students.

    Anyway, I thought we weren’t meant to use words like ‘equal’ any more…isn’t it all about ‘fairness’ now? Perhaps a more conciliatory way of playing to both that sickening, cowardly narrative as well as the basic issue of inequality we dodge is to simply decide in advance which future regret we’re going to have. I suppose there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with inequalities of education, income, health, wealth or the distribution of 0.7 waist-to-hip ratios, as long as they ‘re more or less uncorrelated with each other.


  • ESP

    I also recommend that you read the excellent LRB article referred to above.
    There is one extremely powerful way in which the marketisation of education contributes to social inequality and I can point you to some real-life examples if you are interested. The 10 x £000s of pounds of debt now associated with university firmly places it in the “not for people like us” category for many working-class poor with a fear of debt. The actual numbers are irrelevant and the predicted ability to pay after graduation is a long way away. There is now a growing discourse of “only for the rich”. This is an appalling return to Endarkenment thinking. I’m afraid anyone who refuses to stand up and fight against it hasn’t thought very deeply about it at all.

  • Paul Sagar


    Just a quick answer to one of the themes in your piece (though I agree with much of what has been said above about the unfortunate tendency in your OP to slide into a mere instrumental assessment of HE; and yes, read the Collini piece).

    You complain that Universities – especially “elite” ones – don’t do enough to go and attract “poor” kids. Well, as a former Oxford student and current Cambridge PhD, I’d question that as it stands. I did a lot of outreach at Oxford. Next spring I’ll be going up to Middlesbrough for two days to talk to kids at state comps about applying to Cambridge.

    But let’s leave the outreach question aside in terms of Oxbridge (because that’s who you really mean) doing enough to go and speak to kids from more deprived backgrounds. I ask you 1) why is there no emphasis in your analysis on state *schools* being encouraged to send kids for interview at Oxbridge? Is it that you are continuing the New Labour obsession with attacking the Universities, and not wondering why it is that so many kids from the state sector (where I, incidentally, was educated) by the time their 18 don’t match up to the private competition because the quality of education provided by the state simply isn’t as high? It seems to me that the government should get its own house in order – re the quality of state education – before it starts witch-hunting the universities.

    2) Has it occurred to you that kids from poorer backgrounds, who have in all likelihood received poor-standard educations, may not thrive at elite universities even if you get them in? This is not because poorer kids are inherently inferior or less intelligent – it’s because in order to *cope* with the enormous stress and difficulty (both intellectually and personally) of (say) an Oxbrige undergraduate degree, one needs to be prepared (intellectually and emotionally) to a very, very high degree. Otherwise, the result can be a kick-back and (survival-motivated) decision to disengage. And then everybody loses; the poorer-background kid who is frozen-out and shuts-down, and the other kid who didn’t get a place because we were being socially inclusive.

    What I’m trying to say is: this is bloody difficult. Universities are not conspiring to subjugate the working classes; tutors want the best students regardless of background. But it’s very, very difficult to work things to ensure that a) kids from poorer backgrounds receiving poor state school educations are good enough to take a place to begin with, and b) have what it takes to survive. Your analysis – “oh, let’s bash the universities for not trying hard enough” – is vastly oversimplistic, unhelpful, and simply repeates the simplified misconceptions of the last administration.

  • JamesE

    The latest report by Sir Martin Harris, Office for Fair Access, shows that widening participation schemes are beginning to produce good results. The report says that HEFCE figures ‘shows there have been sustained and significant increases in the proportion of young people from our most disadvantaged groups entering HE since the mid-2000s’. However, the report goes on to note that the number of young people from the poorest families who progress into the most prestigious universities – research intensive, Russell Group institutions – remains stubbornly low. Sir Martin Harris recommends, among other things, that more should be done to raise the attainment of the most capable, disadvantaged young people.

    Meanwhile, many wealthy parents are spending significant amounts of money on private tutoring to ensure their children get into a Russell Group university. The tutors who undertake this tutoring are highly experienced and get excellent results. They help to assure that many privileged young people secure entrance to Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities. The tutors know what universities want, and will help students with their university applications and interviews. They also intensively teach students in their final years to help them achieve the required A-level results.

    I have contacts with a number of these tutors, and I am interested in establishing a charity that would bring this private, expert tutoring to the most talented young people from poor backgrounds. I feel that this direct intervention is needed if the figures on widening participation to Russell Group universities from the poorest families are to improve.

    I would be interested to hear any views on this idea, or if people know of any similar schemes.

  • ESP

    It’s an interesting idea and I’d like to explore it more.
    I can think of lots of obstacles but it certainly contains the seed on something new so let’s see if we can build on the thought somehow.

  • ESP

    That should be “seed of”.
    Of course.

  • Patricia

    I second Ruth in recommending Collini’s article. It makes a much needed intervention in stressing that the HE ‘reform’ proposed by the current government should be understood ideologically. Approaching university education in terms of business needs, economic growth and individual investment, the coalition government perpetrates the old neo-liberal ideology of ‘getting rich or dying trying’. It is difficult to see how to square this outlook with the turn away from ‘individualistic’ capitalism and the embrace of the collective civic engagement much talked about by the government. Putting the recent student demo in this context, suggests a more charitable interpretation of what is actually opposed: education is not about individual investment – it is about collective/public benefit.

    This said, I could not agree more with you Matthew that the ‘real damage’ to social mobility happens at the stage of primary and secondary education. It is not clear that it should be the job of universities to promote social mobility – yet, there’s no question that a lot of people involved in the HE admissions to the ‘elitist’ institutions like Oxford, take widening participation very seriously. A strange thing about many ‘Oxford people’ doing the admissions is that – while agonising over making the system more sensitive to the ‘state-school’ circumstance – they would NOT event consider NOT sending their kids to public schools. I’ll not be persuaded that people take social mobility seriously in the UK as long as talking about scraping independent education remains such a taboo!

  • John Holmwood

    I’m very sympathetic to the idea that higher education cannot be separated from wider issues of social justice. However, I don’t see how social justice will be promoted by creating privileged higher education as a ‘positional good’ and creating a two, or even three, tier higher education system where the upper tier is aligned with private secondary education. Given your concern about the number of applicants who failed to get places this year, you should be aware that the government seems willing to countenance a 16% reduction in places as a consequence of these changes. Finally, your society ought to be taking a stand on the privatisation of higher education and the philistinism of a government that sees no public value in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

  • Livy


    …the philistinism of a government that sees no public value in the arts, humanities, and social sciences….

    That made me smile – and not much does.

    But then again, I’ve never been able to win this argument. I’ve never come up with a satisfying explanation for why a northern truck driver who didn’t go to university, and whose children didn’t go to university, had to subsidise a “southern nancy boy” like me to read Ancient Greek poetry for three years.

    All you can do is tear apart anyone brazen enough to make the over rehearsed, ridiculous claim that the difference between having “a degree” (lovely and precise) and not is a life time earning of 100k.

    James E:

    I really like your suggestion. It does already go on in the music world, but to a smaller extent. Becoming a competent musician is unfortunately dependent on private coaching in the majority of cases; hard work and talent are only half the equation, and there’s no way I would be where I am if I wasn’t personally mentored by a couple of phenomenal guys for free. Mobilising that concept on a grander scale would be an amazing thing to see, and I doubt it would be difficult to convince other private music teachers to voluntarily train 3 underprivileged kids a week for nothing. It would be even better if record labels made it part of the terms and condition of their contracts with newly singed artists. If nothing else they would get great PR out of it, and there’s no way musicians desperate to get signed would refuse to do it if they knew their own success was contingent on helping the less fortunate achieve theirs.


  • ESP

    I think you underestimate the northern truck driver.
    The issue is not job “status” or income but the far more important characteristic of respect for education.
    There are many extremely well-educated and successful people who emerged from the mining villages of central Scotland DIRECTLY as a result of free university education (with grants on top) in the 1960s and 70s.
    I hope Helena Kennedy may be proud to say she benefitted from it.
    And I certainly did.
    You see, socialism does actually work when properly implemented.

  • Livy

    Livy, I think you underestimate the northern truck driver.

    Total non sequitur

  • ESP

    I am perfectly capable of deciding whether my posts are relevant without the need for your evaluation.
    I can assure you that it is not non sequitor.
    If you reflect for a while, you may understand.
    Perhaps you would also take a moment to reflect on the value of politeness on public bulletin boards,

  • Livy

    Whether the northern truck driver was happy to pay tax in order for me to study liberal arts is a separate question to my feelings of injustice around the fact that he had to. The point is that the benefits of higher education accrue disproportionately to the degree holder, who is predominantly from a more affluent background with more educated parents and social capital than most of the taxpayers who foot the bill.

    It does not follow that because I cannot justify the least well off in society subsidising those born into opportunity purchasing wage enhancing degrees, especially ones incapable of leading to an invention that cures cancer or lights bulbs longer, that I necessarily believe or previously implied an inability for people who drive trucks to respect education. Indeed, my parents, who don’t have a GCSE between them and have spent their lives working manual jobs, don’t mind paying the tax.

    I understood the sentiment behind what you wrote, and it’s not without merit. Sir. However, the story absent from most of these discussions on social change is that of absolute social mobility; a story which is seldom told and almost never heard precisely because it is generally quite good – but that doesn’t stop us all running the hedonic treadmill.

    Perhaps you would also take a moment to reflect on the value of politeness on public bulletin boards.

    Grow up.


  • ESP

    You didn’t understand the sentiment behind what I said. Madam.
    Now that sentence just sounds downright rude, doesn’t it? That is why I am asking for politeness. Please.

    Allow me to try again: instead of projecting your own construction of how a truck driver thinks, it would be better to listen to real people. Their socioeconomic background is irrelevant. Their values and attitude to education are relevant. In my experience, the vast majority of the wealth-creating (i.e. working) class value education highly and are very happy to pay taxes for anyone to be educated – unless they are told a partial story about it (i.e. a blatant lie). However, they are not happy to subsidise eduation that only results in arrogance and patronising comments from the wealth-draining (i.e. “upper”) classes.
    I am not sure what a hedonic treadmill is though narcissistic hedonism does seem very present today. Just try counting the frequency of the expression “I want” in David Cameron’s unprepared speech. It almost sounds like he has grown up in a culture of entitlement where one only has to express a desire and it will magically be satisfied. “I want” to hear him clearly state what he is prepared to do – not what he wants others to do for him.

    Matthew – assuming this blog is supported by RSA funds, I’d prefer that my subscription isn’t used to allow ad hominem attacks and abuse to appear. I’ve asked for politeness but, if that isn’t forthcoming, prehaps you could suggest what to do. I really don’t appreciate being rudely told to “grow up” and I am not prepared to tolerate it.

  • Livy


    …Your definition of impolite was originally having a portion of your argument regarded as logically inconsistent. In the real world that is an intellectually immature reaction, and the rest of us don’t feel we have a God given human right to go through life without being offended or have our views challenged.

    If, however, you still feel a deep sense of anguish and personal insult over something written by somebody you don’t even know on a blog, then OK you win.

    I apologise, and I take it all back.

    Kind regards,

    Madam Livy xxx

  • ESP

    Livy, apology accepted.

    And – again, you are attributing to me motivations that are not mine. My definition of impolite was NOT “having a portion of my argument regarded as logically inconsistent”. My definition of impolite (and, again, I am perfectly capable of understanding my own thoughts without your evaluations) was the impolite nature of your chosen mode of expression.
    It seems that you consistently misunderstand what I am actually saying. May I respectfully suggest: slow down, read carefully and reflect. Then I would be very happy to read your considered comments – whether or not your opinion agrees with mine. That way we may be able to constructively and dialectically reach something valuable.

  • Livy

    Just out of interest, what year did you graduate?

  • ESP

    It depends …. I have more than one degree but, as you may approximate from my first posting earlier, my I graduated with my first degree in 1980.


  • Paul

    Secondary education (particularly A-level) has been transformed from a system which ranked all the candidates, to one which tests whether they have reached a particular threshold. At university entrance, the discriminating power of the exam results is lower (everyone is sitting in a block of “equally successful” candidates), so the informal parts of the application carry higher weighting. And the nature of those informal parts (overseas “expeditions”, out of school social and team activities) delivers an advantage to prosperous candidates who can afford to participate.

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