Did BA boom help the poor?

25th August 2006 at 01:00
Has the recent, massive expansion of universities benefited working-class youngsters?

For the first time in many years, there are more places at university this year than students to fill them. Not only have universities been expanding; they have done so despite 17,000 fewer applications.

We know why universities have expanded. They were paid to. For every pound;1 received for taking an extra student, they get a pound;2 subsidy from the taxpayer.

But why the fall in applications? There are two familiar ways of looking at it. One is to protest that the pound;3,000 top-up fee is deterring some school-leavers. The other is to point out that not only are more students going to university, but that the students who have not applied this year would almost certainly be wasting their time and money at university. To that extent, it is a good thing that they may have been put off by the tuition fee.

Actually, both the above miss a fundamental point: it is not the system or tuition fees that are responsible for either the rise in student numbers or fall in admissions. For that, we need to look to schools and class. Today's universities are a bastion of the middle classes - and that means something is fundamentally wrong.

The argument about the percentage who should go to university is in many ways sterile. The proper answer, surely, is that university ought to be available to those who both merit it and can benefit from it. But today's universities do not meet those criteria.

At least 90 per cent of students with A-levels go on to higher education, a proportion that has not changed greatly in recent years. So the problem of working-class under-representation is not caused by university admissions practices, rather it is the fact that so many poorer pupils leave the system earlier, at the age of 16.

Too many lower-class children are failed at GCSE level. In fact, the proportion of 16-plus children not in any kind of education or training increased from 9.4 per cent in 1994 to 12.6 per cent in 2004.

It is interesting that Oxford and Cambridge have both the lowest drop-out rates and the lowest proportion of state-educated undergraduates (Oxford has just 53.8 per cent and Cambridge 56.9 per cent). They also have the lowest proportion of working-class undergraduates. (According to the Office for Fair Access, the proportion at Oxford is 11.5 per cent) and at Cambridge 11.4 per cent).

Contrast Oxbridge with London Metropolitan University, where 96.4 per cent of undergraduates are state-educated - and only 52.2 per cent finish their course. Is that because lower-class undergraduates are more frivolous or stupid? Of course not. It is because middle-class students are so much better prepared for university and receive better financial support.

And, as the Higher Education Policy Institute indicates, universities will continue to be middle-class bastions. As it says: "After peaking in 2010-11 the number of young people will decline ... rapidly until the end of the next decade.?

"However, the decline... will be concentrated in those social groups who participate least in higher education, so the effect on student demand will be much less severe than would otherwise be the case."

In other words, the fall in population will be among the lower classes. And because universities are pretty much a working-class-free zone, the student population will be stable.

So much for the greater opportunities offered by state education today.

Universities are now even more dominated by the middle classes than before.

It is no wonder that the golden rule of public policy is that reforms almost always produce the precise opposite of that intended.

Stephen Pollard is a senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, and co-author with Lord Adonis of A Class Act: the myth of Britain's classless society

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