Alan Milburn’s justified criticism of the government’s decision to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance – a ‘very bad mistake’, he argues – may have grabbed the headlines, but there is much else that is good and useful in his thoughtful, intelligent report on the role of higher education in advancing social mobility.
Particularly welcome is the recognition that higher education is an important public and social good – as well as an economic one. As the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning noted, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. Higher education is as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills. It is about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfilment as much as it is about equipping them for work. And while nobody would deny that it makes a critical contribution to the economic success of the country, to create a system that, in Lord Dearing’s words, can ‘inspire and enable’ individuals from every background to ‘develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life’, a wider vision is necessary, and Milburn’s acknowledgement of the diverse purposes of higher education is important.
Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important in achieving both economic growth and greater social mobility. For that reason, it is good to see the consideration given to mature and part-time students in the report, and the concerns Milburn raises about the substantial fall in applications from mature students and the steep drop in part-time numbers expected in admissions for this year. He is also right to highlight the failure of the government to adequately communicate the new fees regime, particularly to part-timers and mature students, whom it appears to have deterred. As he notes:
While there has been considerable effort to target potential applicants from schools and colleges that go through the UCAS system, others, including mature students and part-time students, have been left out. Evidence from outreach teams suggests that part-time students are confused by, or simply unaware of, the loan support that is now available to them. Applications from this group have significantly dropped across the sector at universities which specialise in part-time students, and there is a risk that what should be a good news story regarding the extension of loans to part-time students will turn into a bad news story, as people are put off applying through a lack of effective information.
The report calls for the government to broaden its communications effort ‘to include applicants who are not coming straight from school’ and to develop ‘a new strategy for encouraging non-traditional students – especially mature and part-time students – into higher education’. It is to be hoped that ministers act on this suggestion and think seriously about how to improve their messaging to these groups.
Milburn argues, rightly in my view, that some of the government’s key policy interventions in higher education are likely to have unintended negative consequences for social mobility, in particular the so-called ‘core and margin’ mechanism, which allows ‘unconstrained recruitment of high achieving students (AAB+) and creates a ‘flexible margin’ of 20,000 places available to universities charging £7,500 or less in tuition fees. There is a danger that these reforms could further polarise the HE system, with elite institutions competing for high-achieving students and other, middle-ranking, institutions forced to cut costs (and, in some cases, inevitably, standards) in order to compete for the flexible margin of places. In particular, the unconstrained recruitment of AAB+ students will make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at highly selective institutions. Milburn says:
Such polarisation would be deeply damaging and could have undesirable consequences for social mobility if able candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds felt constrained to choose lower-cost provision. Indeed, it could create a vicious cycle in which those universities which charge less will have less scope to invest in facilities and to enhance the student experience, with the result that they may find it increasingly difficult to attract high-achieving students or those from wealthier backgrounds, regardless of the quality of teaching on offer.
Milburn’s calls for the sector to make the use of contextual data ‘as universal as possible in admissions processes’, and to standardise it, are also welcome. Many universities already make use of contextual information, for example, family income and the type of school attended by applicants, in admissions, but it should be used more widely. It is of particular importance to ‘second chance’ adult students who are less likely to have conventional qualifications. I support Milburn’s rejection of the distinction between ‘equity and excellence’ and support his argument that ‘over-reliance on A-level results engineers a distorted intake to universities, and fails to meet the criteria of excellence’. There is evidence that students who attended state schools perform better in finals compared to privately-educated pupils with the same A-level scores. It is clear that, in many cases, university admissions systems do favour students from private schools.
There are many other positives in Milburn’s report. There are sensible proposals for shifting resources away from bursaries and fee waivers towards outreach and support for students while studying, and for more and better evidence as to what approaches to outreach work best. And it is good to see recognition in the report of the important role played by HE in further education colleges in enhancing the diversity of the higher education sector, and of the need to increase the proportion of apprentices entering higher education. Milburn’s calls for greater long-term investment in education, with more public and private investment in higher education, and for an expansion in student numbers to allow more part-timers and mature students into the system, also deserve support.
Milburn is also right to say that the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and its replacement with a new system of discretionary support (‘inadequate,’ Milburn says) was a serious mistake, though there are concerns, voiced by new universities group Million+, that making universities responsible for providing financial incentives for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds could create a ‘postcode lottery’ that might lead to the exclusion of many students. Universities will be reluctant to fill the funding gap left by the withdrawal of the EMA and more thought needs to be given as to how an adequate alternative to the scheme can be funded.
In some respects, Milburn’s proposals are too narrow. While he does well to highlight significant concerns about mature and part-time student applications, much of his report is overly focused on younger, full-time students, and there is not enough on how to encourage participation among adults who are not currently learning in institutional settings. Milburn’s proposals for incentivising young people to stay on and succeed at school will do nothing to help mature students and there is little here to address specific support and retention issues facing older and part-time students. More attention too might have been given to the role of families in supporting young people into higher education, and the critical part family learning can play in transforming attitudes and aspiration. There are dangers in the report too, not least that the collective use of ‘statistical targets’ could seriously limit institutions’ capacity to respond flexibly to local circumstance and their own distinct challenges on admissions.
Participation in higher education remains painfully unequal, with the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities that the 40 per cent most disadvantaged. Milburn is right that universities, and in particular highly selective universities, need to do more to help raise aspiration and attainment and to identify excellence wherever it is to be found. He is also right to dismiss objections that the focus ought to be solely on schools and that a university place should be determined solely by attainment at A-level. Every university should seek to do more to widen participation and make access fairer, and the government should work to ensure a policy framework that makes this easier rather than harder. It is to be hoped that Alan Milburn’s report will reopen debate about the future and purpose of higher education and, critically, get us all thinking hard about what to do about the troubling decline in mature and part-time student admissions.