Opinion: The proposed changes to higher education demonstrates a failure for social mobility

The government’s proposed changes to higher education are riddled with significant flaws. Although the Johnson government would argue that the plans will reduce the burden on taxpayers, hold universities accountable in terms of job attainment for lower-income graduates, and broaden financial support for high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the plans will ultimately fail in improving access to university education. 

Indeed, the proposed changes show contempt for disadvantaged students who do not obtain the proposed requirements. According to the BBC, under the current proposals: “Students who lack English and maths GCSEs, or two A Levels at grade E, would not qualify for a student loan in England, under new plans”. The Conservative message to the British electorate in 2019 was to ‘level up’, but we are now beginning to understand what that means in practice. The government is showing blatant disregard for students who do not obtain maths or English GCSE without any consideration for the causes of this in the first place. The important caveat to this proposal is that it concerns funding for students. It is currently a possibility for students to obtain maths or English GCSE as a pre-requisite for further study, but this policy will prevent disadvantaged students from attending in the first place. This comes at a time when the cost of living is increasing, with higher food prices and heating bills which will squeeze those on the lower end of the income spectrum. These students are the ones most in need of financial support, but the government proposes, as the cliché goes, to pull the rug out from under them. Fundamentally, this policy is unfair and nonsensical in terms of supporting social mobility. 

This leads us to ask: who is making these decisions? These new proposals are ultimately reflective of the disconnect between Boris Johnson’s privileged upbringing – a man who, like other Prime Ministers before him, went to both Eton and Oxford. Thus, it is entirely plausible to argue that these nonsensical policies driven by the privileged political elite are indicative of the lack of understanding of the difficulties that lower-income families face, exemplified in Johnson’s earlier claim that ‘economic inequality is essential’. A report on the HE proposals states that: “The highest lifetime earners will pay back 26% less under the new system”, further demonstrating that the proposals will exacerbate income inequality. Again, the so-called ‘levelling-up’ rhetoric of the 2019 General Election demonstrates that the Conservative commitment to improve social mobility in terms of higher education lacks any merit. 

There is additional evidence to suggest that the proposed changes will have a greater impact on female students as well as ethnic minorities: “Alongside younger and female borrowers, those likely to see some negative impact with increased lifetime repayments under the reforms for both post-2012 and new borrowers are more likely than average to have characteristics of white or black ethnicity, from disadvantaged backgrounds, or reside in the North, Midlands, South-West or Yorkshire and the Humber.” 

Under the new proposals, the role of universities will be emphasised in terms of graduate job attainment for disadvantaged pupils. According to the BBC: “Universities Minister Michelle Donelan is telling vice-chancellors to rewrite their access and participation plans, which they produce every five years”; “Those that miss their targets will not be able to charge full fees.” To some extent, it should be expected that universities support their graduates to obtain an excellent job, however the proposed government plans will significantly increase the difficulty of getting to university in the first place. It is a rather hollow attempt to support disadvantaged students – the report demonstrates that the priority is on fiscal terms rather than a fair reflection of what our education system actually needs: increased funding for each pupil to ensure that all schools have the resources to support their students and a fair analysis of how income affects education attainment. It is vital that our education system prioritises equality of opportunity to go to university if this is the path that a young person takes. It is vital that individuals can make decisions which are not directly hindered by the government’s proposals. 

Indeed, it is counter-productive to limit the options that disadvantaged students have. Higher education means an opportunity to learn and gain new skills which will ultimately be of great benefit to the UK’s economy in an increasingly competitive graduate job market. This has been reiterated by several universities, as “placing a cap on aspiration was bad for individuals, the economy and society”.

Image: Boris Johnson Cabinet Meeting at the FCO (2020). Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Link to deed.

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