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The Expansion of Universities does not Solve the Problem of Inequality in Education

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

The Prime Minister’s post-election ‘level up’ slogan refers to the commitment to more equally distribute income, growth and power in the United Kingdom. For this to be a real, long-term success, quite drastic change needs to occur in educational attainment and success in the country. Tony Blair was right to declare “education, education, education!” as his top priority for office, but over 10 years after the Prime Minister of devolution and university hikes, the UK stands amongst the worst performing rich nations in education inequality. This article offers some possible solutions to the problem at the level of the teacher and pupil. To be clear, structural-based, top-down solutions are also necessary, but they can be slow to come and often disappointing. In the meantime, individuals can do much to improve their lots.

Teach First is clear. “The chance of a [British] child from a poorer background going to a higher-performing school is falling”. This is not wrong. Some poorer children are years behind their wealthy peers in relatively basic informal and formal educational attainments. This is reflected in universities, with up to 50% of Russell Group students having been privately educated or come from an otherwise higher-performing school. All universities, but especially Russell Group and especially regarding the most economically valuable or rigorous courses, check for ‘facilitating’, ‘useful’, ‘limited’, ‘less effective’ and ‘non-counting’ A-Levels, which constitute the training ground for university education. Privately educated children are significantly more likely to choose the higher-end A-Levels which entice good university admission officers. With that and the fruits of wealth on their side, they form a devastating opposition to state school pupils seeking valuable university places. Universities are also championed when they substantially decrease the proportion of privately educated students in their intakes. With the above information, one ought to stamp a considerable question mark over this blind praise. Rather, we may be better off championing individuals from low performing schools who end up in a university with a high proportion of privately educated students or/and such individuals who end up on the most rigorous university courses such as Medicine and Veterinary Science.

Of course, relatively poor educational attainment is a disadvantage in and of itself, but theoretically, one has their whole life to improve their education. The main problem here is that slower educational attainment slows one down because poorer means lead to poorer ends. Blair seemed to assume that more funding and more young people going to university would solve the problem of educational inequality. For far too many people and regions, it did not and will not. Nobody can take away an Eton from one’s CV while another need not even bother putting down their unknown secondary school, and it does not require millions from the Treasury to make sure all teachers tell all pupils that not all A-Levels are pills to academic ecstasy in a top university. It is no wonder more funding and higher university numbers are not the problem-solvers to educational inequality. Indeed, for all the emphasis on critical thinking, more critique of universities needs to be made by teachers. Something like, “a university that accepted your three Ds at A-Level in Media, Art and Religion is a university that may give you more trouble than good” might be a good start. If we are going to bridge the educational divide, we will have to start with honesty: catching up with the wealthy is only going to be harder if we continue to lazily accept the attitude that takes all universities for granted. Some of them should be scrapped more ruthlessly than the mines under Thatcher, some subjects certainly so.

All of this does not address the vitally important problem noted above: some poorer children are years behind their wealthier peers in relatively basic educational pursuits. Nevertheless, half of 18-year-olds will now go to university, and likely even more if more applied. It shows. The Organisation for Economic Development found that one in five English graduates had abysmally poor literacy rates, while over a quarter could not excel in numeracy beyond the level of estimating available fuel using a petrol gauge. This is despite the fact that England spends over £5,000 more per student than countries which performed significantly better. Are poorer pupils aspiring to university or is university dumbing down for poorer pupils? The latter is not good for the long-term.

It is no wonder that UK productivity is sluggish and sometimes even falling, graduate prospects are often low, debt is common and mental health problems with it. All of those make the economy slower than it could be, which makes levelling up more difficult, the kind of levelling up required to improve the skills of poorer pupils. This is especially the case as those graduates who do find graduate-level jobs tend to do so in the South of England. London is home to the highest concentration of graduates in UK and boasts the top graduate recruiters. It is also an incredibly expensive city, not least for housing, and thus a burner of graduate earnings.

In graduate-level jobs, the Prime Minister faces the daunting task of changing the reinforcing system currently bent against levelling up the country, especially if he wants to do it without only throwing money at the problem. Indeed, better or wealthier graduates tend to end up in cities like London, while weaker ones return home, which cries out for the wealth thrown at the rip-off property in the South of England. It also cries out for the best educators to give those much-needed skills to poorer pupils. Generally, though, the best teachers might prefer the school where the pupils are less challenging, and that school is generally the one with better off pupils. There may be a rising tide here lifting all boats, but this article is concerned with inequality, and difference remains or is even exacerbated. One thing is clear, however: university is not and never was the proper solution to our educational divide because the divide starts long before it. Opening the university doors to all 18-year-olds attacks the symptoms, not the cause, of the educational divide.

According to CV-Library, a prominent independent job site, a third of graduates regret their degree, so teachers of schools in disadvantaged areas need to provide an honest view of university to their pupils after ensuring standards are high without yielding to the stress (reflective of the real world, after all) they may give. Particularly dire is the fact that the advantaged groups of society are even often filling up most degree-level apprenticeship places. As universities become the mainstream, disadvantaged schools rely on them more as the next step in the careers of their pupils. The problem is that they are relying on average or bad universities (there have been several reports from pupils and teachers in less affluent schools that they are less encouraged to apply for top universities) and forsaking real advice on and insight into apprenticeships which may help less academically-inclined pupils get ahead in life and actually push them to attain the basic skills needed for all jobs that even graduates are lacking. After all, a clear and desired end goal is a strong motivator to do better. Teachers need to offer it and the go-to ‘uni’ can be too vague or alienating - “I don’t want to go to uni, so why should I even work hard at school?” Sadly, the vague university option is now the default. This should not be used to cover a class divide where university is reserved for the middle class. Rather, the university option is now so precarious that even if that did occur, it is starting to not matter. Able pupils should be given advice on strong university courses in worthy universities, practical pupils on apprenticeships, and no whole school should lazily take any university in its stride. All options should be clearly explained to pupils, then teachers should address the specifics with each pupil one-to-one with no vague or biased conception of university. Finally, we return to the above: schooling and education are different, so one can pursue the economically sensible path, help level up the country and improve his academic rigour in his spare time. Another thing, then: banish the notion that schooling has a monopoly over educaction. It does not and should not.

With the average UK university now terribly mediocre, its place as the default end for many schools is not a default a levelling-up Prime Minister should want. This is not to say that even average UK universities do not continue to improve the prospects of individuals, but they seem to be on a downward trend, and when it comes to addressing the educational divide and the country as a whole, other and much more critical approaches are needed.

Jack Margetson





The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs


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