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Does Higher Education affect inequality?

Higher Education

Earlier this month, the Levelling Up Commission held an inquiry session on education and skills where experts were invited to discuss inequalities in the sector. The inquiry was split into three parts with part one focusing on SEND and pupil premium in schools across the country.

In part two, the conversion was shifted to higher education and the different outcomes for disadvantaged students when they leave university and seek employment. The panel was hosted by Paula Sheriff, the former Shadow Minister for Social Care and Mental Health and for Women and Equalities, and she was joined by Professor Lindsey Macmillan and Doctor Hollie Chandler.

Professor Macmillan being Director at the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at University College London and Doctor Chandler being Director of policy at Russell Group, both panellists provided the commission with invaluable insights in relation to the topic.

Outcome differences

To start things off, Professor Macmillan took the commission through some vital data around student outcomes for disadvantaged students specifically for deprived areas in the country and ethnic minorities.

The data showed that the average earnings, post-university, of students who grew up eligible for free school meals is 20% less than those who didn’t. In terms of ethnic differences, she said:

“In terms of ethnicity, there was a report a few years ago that focused on the challenges facing white working-class boys, arguing that this group are left behind in terms of educational outcomes. In our data, we found that white working-class boys are performing much worse than all other groups in terms of education at age 16.

“Black Caribbean boys also have low performance while Chinese, Bangladeshi and Indian women have particularly high performance. However, when we follow these individuals into the labour market you can see that actually this group of disadvantaged white boys are earning more than almost every other group”.

“Indian and Bangladeshi men are also performing well but Bangladeshi women who perform really well at age 16 are doing less well. The gender gap has switched – women perform much worse than men in the labour market which shows us that education isn’t translating to labour market outcomes in a clear way.”

You can watch the full video here:

What role does higher education play in changing these outcomes?

Speaking further about the data from UCL, Professor Macmilan stated that high school education success doesn’t translate to university enrollment. She said:

“Bangladeshi women are one of the lowest participating groups despite their strong performance at age 16 with exams results. Meanwhile, Black Africans are far less likely to receive a first or a 2:1 despite being the most likely disadvantaged group to go to university when compared to their white counterparts.

“When reporting on reasons for this, a lack of representation at British universities comes through as a huge reason. We need to do better. Targeted campaigns can improve participation of disadvantaged groups and universities need to focus more on keeping their students rather than just getting them in in the first place.

In order to level up, education policy alone isn’t enough. We need to think about the wider structure and social security net and how were’ going to help people get on with life.”

What is working at university level?

Supplementing the data provided by Professor Macmillan, Doctor Hollie Chandler provide some examples of initiatives that are being run by Russell Group Universities to better support and encourage disadvantaged students. She said:

“Our data shows the support we’re providing is working – disadvantaged students are now more likely to complete their degree and continue with more education or go into a high-paid job than the same students at non-Russell group universities.

“There are still gaps though so more needs to be done. All of our members have plans in place to make progress, including outreach programmes with local schools and colleges and dedicated programmes for disadvantaged applicants.

“One hurdle we often come across is the challenge of identifying those most need in need and getting the right support to them. Universities have limited data on students’ backgrounds so we are calling on the government to make this data available to universities to help get targeted support to disadvantaged students.”

The cost-of-living impact on disadvantaged students

In recent years, students in general have faced a raw deal due to the coronavirus pandemic, which not only resulted in their courses moving online but also negatively impacted on their student experience. To make matters worse, the subsequent cost of living crisis has only made life more difficult for those at university.

Talking in greater depth about the impact that these two crises have had on students, Doctor Chandler said:

“It’s not a surprise that there has been a financial and mental health toll on students as a result of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. Sadly, this is only likely to worsen given inflation rates, and this will impact the most disadvantaged students the hardest.

“Our universities have invested tens of millions in additional hardship funding and financial help to adjust bursaries, provide one-off payments, and subsidise food on campus costs. These impacts are being felt by the majority of students which means we really need the government’s help.

“One huge problem is that the maintenance loan isn’t rising with inflation which means that students are set to lose out on around £1.5k each year in real terms. There is an urgent need to increase this loan in line with inflation and to reintroduce maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged.”

Summary

  • The second panel session of the Levelling Up Commission’s inquiry focused on higher education and the outcomes for disadvantaged students.
  • Experts highlighted lower post-university earnings for disadvantaged students, enrollment gaps, and the need for targeted support.
  • Russell Group Universities’ initiatives show progress, but challenges persist.
  • The pandemic and cost of living crisis worsened the financial and mental toll on students, underscoring the urgency for increased loans and grants.

Final thought

The insights revealed during the Levelling Up Commission’s education-based inquiry shed light on the intricate web of challenges and opportunities within the education sector.

As the data underlines the discrepancies in outcomes for disadvantaged students and highlights the gaps between educational achievements and subsequent labour market success, it becomes evident that merely improving education policy is insufficient.

The shared initiatives and strategies of Russell Group Universities signal a positive direction, yet the importance of targeted campaigns, representation, and holistic support mechanisms cannot be overstated.

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