Written by Dr Kate Hoskins, Reader in Education
Providing opportunities for young people leaving compulsory schooling to pursue world-class further and higher education is a global concern. Post-compulsory education is constructed as a panacea for social mobility, but has fallen disappointingly short of this ambition in many country contexts.
In the UK in December 2017, the then secretary of state for education, Justine Greening MP, set out her ambitious plans to improve social mobility through education. She set out four targets that will provide interventions for children from the early years onwards, continuing through until they obtain rewarding careers that enable them to ‘fulfil their potential’.
These plans demonstrate a level of political desire to improve access to quality education to provide opportunities to disadvantaged students to progress through compulsory, further and higher education regardless of their social background. Ambition three aims to provide high-quality post-16 education choices for all young people. The rationale for this ambition is based on the economic need for ‘business to make technical education world class’, and to expand access for disadvantaged young people to attend the best universities. To improve access to technical, vocational and higher education requires sustained and targeted policies to widen participation.
But how effective is the oft-cited goal of widening participation in higher education? In the case of England the higher education system has undergone significant change in the past 50 years. While less than one in ten adults had a university degree in the mid-1960s, more than one in three now do. The system’s massification has driven the likelihood of attending university to very high levels: in 2012–2013, 39 per cent of 17–30-year-olds were participating in some form of higher education.
Despite significant investment, the increased participation in higher education is disproportionate among different socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural groups. It remains the case that socioeconomic background is a strong predictor of higher education attendance, with household earnings a good indicator of whether young people will attend university. The government has sought to equalise access to higher education through policy initiatives aiming at widening participation among non-traditional students.
However, in practice this agenda has not managed to disrupt deeply embedded social differences between advantaged and disadvantaged groups, and has consolidated a two-tier higher education system between the middle and the working classes.
These are just some of the issues addressed in my recently published book, Youth Identities, Education and Employment, which is based on in-depth qualitative interviews and focus groups with teachers and students in a case-study school, and investigates how policy, family background, social class, gender and ethnicity influence young people’s post-16 and post-18 education access.
The book reveals students’ and teachers’ ambivalence towards higher education because of the associated debt, in a relatively advantaged school that would normally expect a significant proportion of students (40–50 per cent in previous years), to apply to university. The increase in tuition fees presents a challenge to the widening participation agenda: it raises social justice questions about those students who will no longer identify university as a realistic option for them, and those who will continue to pursue a degree. If students are not prepared to accrue debt then other pathways towards employment, such as apprenticeships or working up through a company, will be necessary. Students will be forced to draw on their extended family and community networks to secure employment.
All of the students I interviewed who were intending to apply for some form of higher education were extremely strategic in their discussions about which institutions they would apply for and why. This decision-making rested on their perceptions about which institutions would deliver an economic return. They displayed a keen sense of value for money, and had high expectations for their undergraduate programmes of study in terms of high quality teaching and learning provision. The teachers at Parkfield and many of the parents were reinforcing these expectations. Value for money was a key concern for these participants.
The issue of degree value was of utmost importance to the students. The teachers and senior leaders I interviewed were all encouraging the more academically able students towards applying for Russell Group institutions, citing the benefits of an elite degree in the employment market and their intention to enhance their school’s reputation. Over time, this sort of push could have a significant impact on newer, less prestigious universities, particularly if fees are to remain broadly the same for all institutions and all subject areas. The incoming teaching excellence framework (TEF) is likely to reshape the higher education fee structures: fees charged for courses are likely to change, and fees could become relational to the subject area and to the reputation of individual institutions.
Article reproduced with permission from the BERA blog published by the British Educational Research Association (BERA) under Creative Commons
Youth Identities, Education and Employment: Exploring Post-16 and Post-18 Opportunities, Access and Policy, by Kate Hoskins (ISBN 978-1-137-35292-7), is published by Palgrave Macmillan.