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Every once in a while I shamelessly tap my readers’ knowledge for an upcoming speech. This week I am speaking in London on the topic of ‘the role of higher education in delivering a more equal society’.

What I say may be controversial, so if I’ve got this wrong please prevent me annoying people and making a fool of myself...

My top line is that HE doesn’t have much of a role in delivering a more equal society.

For two reasons:

First, the real damage to social inclusion and mobility happens way before young people get to university (1-5 and 11-14 are the key ages). Indeed if a person from a deprived background manages to get decent ‘A’ levels and a place in HE they are pretty much secure on a higher rung of the ladder, even if they do have a lot of debt to pay back.

Second, if universities really did want to make a difference it would mean them being more committed and much bolder than virtually any of them are at present. Instead most universities, especially the elite ones, see widening access as part corporate social responsibility (in other words at the margins of their core activity) and part regulatory burden.

This is, in part, why I won’t be going on any demos – let alone smashing any windows – over the new proposals for student finance. There are two main ways we block access to HE for poorer students who could gain from a degree course; making it too expensive or capping the number of places. With maintenance grants and progressive loan payback I think the Coalition has done what is can to minimise the first risk. But without reform the second would be much greater – already this year we are seeing tens of thousands of students who have done reasonably well in their A levels being denied a place. (I must have missed it but when exactly was the national NUS demo to protest at the abolition of educational maintenance allowances?)    

Of course, some universities have widening participation at their core. These tend to be inner-city former polytechnics and who knows how they will fare under the new funding regime. I admire these institutions but, while they will provide an important route for first generation undergraduates, the worry must be that they will also have their status diminished so that the degrees people receive offer only a small advantage in the labour market (which, in the context of higher fees, means their whole business case may be vulnerable).    

So what kind of things could elite and middle ranking universities do to make me think they were more important to social justice?

They could use their teaching and research capacity as a major lever for social inclusion in their home towns. I remember asking the vice chancellor of a university which has attracted (at huge expense) one of the world’s leading experts on social capital how they were applying his skills to the issue of social capacity in the deprived parts of their city. I might as well have asked how much time Chelsea players spent coaching kids in their local park.

They could use their pulling power to tackle social segregation in the school system. How would it be, for example, if Oxford promised ten bursary-funded places for the  top achieving pupils in each of the ten most deprived comprehensives within 50 miles of the city and then worked with the pupils from GCSE on to ensure they fitted in and were supported. Imagine the impact on the schools and imagine the way middle class parents would start clamouring to get their kids into the schools (I first heard this idea from Peter Wilby).

Or how about universities being Academy sponsors to primary and secondary schools in deprived areas (I think some of this happens but I’m not sure how widespread it is) and committing to ambitious targets for pupils getting university places.

Overall, the most fruitful avenue for exploring a radically different order of impact for HE on social justice might come from the idea of civic universities (which I discussed a few months ago) – institutions with deep roots and a deep commitment to their locality and all its people. Sadly, unless things have changed a lot since the last time I looked, top universities care about as much for the local poor as supermarket chains do for small independent grocers.


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