Did BA boom help the poor?

Has the recent, massive expansion of universities benefited working-class youngsters?

Clearing up the other day, I found some old copies of the Weathervane, the annual magazine for Knoll secondary modern for boys, in Hove, where I went in the mid-60s. One thing jumped out; in 1967, I was the sole student to go to university.

I was lucky. That anyone went on to HE was because of my remarkable head, JK Turner, a passionate believer in comprehensives. The tiny number was not a result of pupils skipping public exams. Many did take them and were often successful. The reason simply, was that university was not even on their or their parents' radar.

Now we know all about the benefits of university. Research, including that conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, confirms the economic as well as social benefits of HE.

Yet consider the evidence about social mobility. A 2005 report by the Centre for Economic Performance concludes that it has fallen markedly since the 1970s and notes the expansion of HE has so far disproportionately benefited those from affluent families.

Consider also the Government target of 50-per-cent participation in HE by 2010. This goal has been attacked from very different political standpoints. Many point to evidence that tuition fees put off the poorest applicants. And it seems obvious that, without free tuition and maintenance grants, poorer students will be deterred. Others argue HE is simply inappropriate for some.

So it looks an open-and-shut case: mass HE is failing to benefit working-class youngsters. Indeed, for some, this failure points to a self-evident truth - that university is not for the working class.

But not only is this wrong, it is a dangerous argument that fuels class division. The term "working class" is being used imprecisely.

The Centre for Economic Performance also shows that it is poverty which has the greatest impact on life chances. It is not that parents from the poorest backgrounds do not have aspirations for their children, it is just that many do not feel that they can make a difference.

Yet the research also suggests parental interest in education boosts young people's achievements. These are problems which need to be tackled. It is the causes of poverty and its effects which should be attacked not the opportunities for getting out of poverty.

There is, of course, a continuing debate to be had about the nature of HE.

Are courses appropriate? What are the barriers to entry and how can they be tackled? It is these questions which have to be answered, rather than asking if HE is right for the working class.

My own experience tells me something else. Selective education lowered the expectations of many young people and parents. The advent of comprehensives removed that mindset. When I was at school, it was only grammar pupils that went to university.

Comprehensive education and mass HE are two sides of the same coin. HE may currently benefit more well-off parents, but it should not be forgotten that vast numbers of working-class young people who would not in the past have gone on to HE, are doing so.

Although, shockingly, selective education still exists in some places, for most young people, the disadvantage caused by selection has been removed.

Many of my classmates would certainly have gone to university had they been at a comprehensive.

The siren voices arguing for a reduction in the proportion going into HE should be ignored. The wider availability of HE on its own will not attract poorer people. Removing barriers to participation will. But, if the expansion were to be reversed, universities would be even more middle-class and the chances of tackling poverty and its pernicious effects undermined.

John Bangs is head of education and equal opportunities at the National Union of Teachers

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