The prospect that the Augar review of post-18 education and funding will in some way restrict numbers entering full-time degrees has led to lots of hand-wringing about blocks on social mobility. Quite right too, because we should strive to give every adult the opportunity to learn and progress to the highest level they want, need or are able to. The problem is, there are restrictions on numbers in every form and level of learning other than higher education. This impacts on up to half the population, hindering their life chances enormously.
The case being made for unlimited access to higher education seems simple but is too simplistic. It’s worrying when universities say that because disadvantaged people have poorer access to higher education now, restricting numbers would hit them even harder as their better-off peers stick their elbows out and gain all the places. Ignoring the stark admission that widening participation has simply not worked, the position doesn't take into account the fact that the Augar review has grander ambitions than simply ensuring more people experience higher education, good as that is.
Not just about HE
Unsurprisingly, too much attention has been paid to the potential impact on university viability and student debt, ignoring the terms of reference that explicitly task the Augar panel with considering how the system can “ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have equal opportunities to progress to and succeed in all forms of post-18 education and training.” The term "all forms" is significant, as is the task of delivering “our industrial strategy ambitions, by contributing to a strong economy and delivering the skills our country needs”.
Both ambitions require a more holistic view of education, training and skills after the age of 18, rather than a narrower focus on higher education alone. Two reports highlight just how important it is to consider social mobility across the whole population. The Department for Education’s own Post-16 Education: highest level of achievement by age 25 report from May 2018 is a must-read, despite the mundane title. The analysis followed the educational, employment and earnings outcomes of the 2004 GCSE cohort, splitting the group into two – those who achieved five good GCSEs and those who didn’t.
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The progression and outcomes are starkly different and should worry everybody concerned about social mobility or fairness. 56 per cent of the cohort achieved five good GCSE passes. Of that group, 76 per cent went on to achieve level 3 (equivalent to A levels) at age 18 and 59 per cent went on to achieve higher level qualifications. For those achieving less than five good GCSEs, only 13 per cent achieved level 3 at age 18 and only 8 per cent achieved higher level qualifications by age 25.
'Tip of an ugly educational iceberg'
Those figures are the tip of an ugly educational iceberg, with achievement throughout compulsory education biased by class, income and parental levels of education. That’s not the remit of the Augar review though, because however quickly those inequalities are addressed up to 18 (and the speed of change is glacial), we need a post-18 system of education and training that addresses them and supports every adult regardless of their level of achievement.
Achieving level 3 at age 18 or 19 is a good yardstick for improved life chances and yet there are no targets or incentives to ensure the system delivers. In fact, for those not achieving five good GCSEs at 16, the system makes it harder. It is likely to take three years to achieve a level 3 and yet, while funding for 16- to 18-year-olds is low (24 per cent lower than for 11- to 16-year-olds), it reduces by 17.5 per cent at age 18, seemingly putting an enormous barrier on progression. The use of income-contingent loans at level 3 for adults has compounded this trap even further.
As if all that weren’t tough enough, the review must deliver the skills our country needs in support of a stronger and more inclusive economy. The Social Mobility Commission report last month on the Adult Skills Gap shows once again how important it is to support more people to achieve at least level 3, with its simple conclusion that “adult skills provide second chances to individuals, but those who benefit most are overwhelmingly those who already have higher levels of adult skills”.
The report confirms that “the poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access adult training – despite being the group who would benefit most”. To put it another way, and to quote Baroness Helena Kennedy from her report Learning Works in 1997, “if at first you don’t succeed…you don’t succeed”. Interestingly, that report highlighted how widening participation at that time was about all people at all levels of education, unlike the narrower emphasis of today which focuses mostly on young people accessing bachelor’s degree courses.
The Augar panel clearly has a big job to do, with issues of fairness and social mobility much more complex than simply how many full-time places are funded for bachelor’s degrees and at what price to the student. A "country that works for everyone" will require a more balanced set of recommendations, considering the needs of everyone over the age of 18 to realise their potential and their ambitions. Access and progression of all learners will need to be central.
If the review results in any new investment, it must be focused on fully funding new entitlement for learning up to level 3, uncapped in numbers for colleges and with maintenance support. Think of how powerful that would be for greater social mobility, and how it would support universities and colleges to help people to progress to higher education and skills. It would overcome the current and severe restrictions on literacy, numeracy, English for speakers of other languages (Esol), digital and other skills opportunities, which are arguably a bigger block on social mobility than any potential restriction on higher education.
Of course, a more balanced investment in all adults would not only be fairer but would also deliver a more inclusive and successful economy, helping to increase taxes to offset the increased investment – a proper virtuous circle.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges