Closing off university access is the essence of levelling down


“Talent is spread evenly, opportunity is not.”

This is a phrase we often hear nowadays. It was first used in my foreword to the Department for Education’s social mobility strategy in 2017. It was a statement of strategy, not just of fact, and a successful plan on social mobility needs to address both issues, not just one.

In the UK we have an attainment gap between more privileged and more disadvantaged young people that must be closed. We must ensure that we open up opportunity more fairly, so that a wider talent pool can reach it. And education is at the heart of that undertaking. We won’t become the levelled-up country that the government says it wants, complete with a high-skill, high-wage economy, without a strong education strategy.

I was the first UK secretary of state for education to have been educated at my local comprehensive school. I’m also proud to have been the first person in my family to go to university. It transformed my prospects and I wish my experience were more widespread.

In government, however, I unfortunately had to deal with a Treasury that knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Well into the 21st century, staggeringly, it still has no robust approach for understanding how to invest in developing any country’s most important asset: its people.

The Treasury mantra was that too many people were going to university who didn’t have good enough grades. And that mantra now seems to have been taken up by the Department for Education too, judging by recent ministerial speeches suggesting that many disadvantaged students would be better off in further education.

Yet, as the Office for Students pointed out in its January report on access and participation plans, “Transforming opportunity in higher education”, academic attainment cannot be the sole proxy for judging potential, and with the right support, many students from diverse and more challenging backgrounds can thrive. The wider evidence shows that young people from disadvantaged families can do just as well if not better than their privileged peers once in higher education.

But we do need a system that gives them the opportunity to get through the door in the first place. That’s why contextualised admissions should be much more widely used, not less. We should be deeply intolerant of the attainment gap that remains in our secondary education system, but as we strive to close it we must not, in the meantime, let today’s disadvantaged young people with the potential to go into higher education miss out.

The second Treasury fallacy was its simplistic fixation on average graduate earnings as the only proxy for whether a degree course and institutions delivered value for money. This blinkered logic ignores how vital it is that higher education helps produce the lower paid but vital teachers and healthcare professionals that the UK needs.

There is another distortion in relation to assessing value for money solely on graduate earnings: young people can get a better class of degree from the same course at the same university yet still go on to earn less than more privileged peers with more connections. There is a privilege premium as well as a graduate premium.

It is an indictment of 21st-century Britain that connections still come before competence and it is utterly perverse that instead of fixing this structural inequality, an argument is now being constructed within government and its supporting commentariat that turns their disadvantage against young people who aspire to do better – and against those higher education institutions that help them the most.

Levelling up is about enabling more young people to have high aspirations and realise their potential. It is wrong to set up higher and further education in opposition to one another. The reality is that the UK’s higher education institutions are already reaching further into their local communities than ever before. Universities including York, Liverpool John Moores and UWE Bristol are among those collaborating with nearby further education institutions, as well as local businesses, to spread opportunities more widely.

The UK faces simple but profound choices. A move to reintroduce student caps longer term, shift away from contextualised admissions and penalise less well-connected young people for being less able to reap the financial rewards from their degree would be the essence of levelling down.

More progress can and must be made. But if urgent reform is needed anywhere, it is within government thinking itself. Unless policymakers take a long, hard look in the mirror, the danger is that short-term, myopic and dysfunctional Treasury thinking will further entrench privilege, prevent levelling up and harm the UK’s talent pipeline – just as it is attempting to forge a post-Brexit economy and emerge from the economic ravages of the coronavirus.

Author Bio: Justine Greening is the founder of the Social Mobility Pledge. She is a former secretary of state for education, minister for women and equalities, secretary of state for international development, secretary of state for transport and economic secretary to the Treasury.