Doug Stokes: We need urgent action to help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get into university

16 Oct

Doug Stokes is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter.

Relative to our nation’s size, UK universities punch well above their global weight. They can also transform lives. As the first person in my family to go to one, and coming through London’s East End inner city schools, I can attest to that.

However, there are also worrying long-term trends that show that in today’s university sector. The odds are increasingly stacked against my younger self.

Our universities attract talent from across the world and are incredibly diverse. Latest figures show that between from 2003 onwards, the proportion of all staff who were UK White steadily decreased to 72.2 per cent in 2019. From Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, the proportion of all staff that are UK citizens stands at 7.9 per cent, and of non-UK BAME staff 5.9 per cent.

This is similar with the UK’s student population, with a remarkable 504,292 ethnic minority students studying in British universities in 2018-2019. Even at Oxford, traditionally seen as a bastion of privilege, more than 22 per cent of its undergraduate students starting in 2019 were Britons from BAME backgrounds, up from 18 per cent on the previous year’s admissions.

Despite this incredible diversity, there are long-term trends that need to be addressed with some urgency. At our most selective universities, only five percent of disadvantaged young people enroll, compared with the national average of 12 per cent. Even if they do get in, young working-class people struggle to stay with an 8.8 per cent dropout rate, compared with 6.3 percent of their peers from better-off families.

Part-time students from lower-income backgrounds have dropped by a massive 42 per cent over the past six years. ONS figures show that the historically low entry rate into higher education of white pupils from state schools has been this way every single year since 2006, whilst the biggest increase in entry rates between 2006 and 2018 was among black pupils, at 19.6 percentage points (from 21.6 per cent to 41.2%); the smallest increase was among White pupils, at 7.7 percentage points (from 21.8 per cent to 29.5 per cent).

There is a gender dimension to this too. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s latest survey of gender participation rates across degrees of all ranges, shows a long term trend of declining male participation. Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS, states that “young women are now 35 per cent more likely to go to university than men. If this differential growth carries on unchecked, then girls born this year will be 75 per cent more likely to go to university than their male peers”.

The latest data on widening participation reinforces this depressing picture. A child on free school meals is the leading indicator of deprivation. In terms of progression amongst young men, 67 per cent of Chinese, 54 per cent Indian, 53 per cent Bangladeshi, 52 per cent of Black African, and 24 per cent Black Caribbean on free school meals progress to higher education.

White British men? Just 13 per cent, and are the least likely of any group to study at university after those from Traveler backgrounds.

These educational disadvantages can have significant real-world effects. ONS pay data shows that Chinese, Indian and mixed or multiple-ethnicity employees all had higher median hourly pay than White British employees, with employees from the Chinese ethnic group earning 30.9 per cent more than White British employees.

A report by NEON, an organisation trying to address these issues, concluded that less than 20 per cent of UK universities have set targets in their Access and Participation Plans for white students from low income neighbourhoods. This is despite often being situated in areas of significant deprivation. Recognising the dysfunctional nature of incentives and governance of our Higher Education system, NEON state that in “the context of the outcome driven approach to access and participation being promoted by the regulator for HE, the Office for Students, if something is not seen as an outcome or target then it will not be prioritised”.

Looking ahead, what can the Conservative Party do to address some of these problems and advance its levelling up agenda?

It is clear this is climbing up the governmental agenda. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, underlined this resolve at the 2020 Conservative Party Conference. “White working class young boys are the most underrepresented group of individuals who go on to university”, he argued. For our country, this is a “shocking disgrace’ that underlines the fact that whilst ‘talent is incredibly evenly distributed right across the country… Opportunity is not.”

Robert Halfon, Chair of the cross-party Education Committee, is now looking at this issue in depth and has committed to standing up “for the most disadvantaged in society” to “give them a voice”. Blue Wall champions, such as Ben Bradley MP, have also championed this issue in the Commons.

It is thus clear that universities may well need to change the way they do things.

First, there are already a number of ideas on the table including more flexibility in degree modularity, whereby a learner can hop in and hop out depending on their often busy lives. There will also likely be a greater emphasis on working with businesses, with apprenticeship schemes and more flexible technical education integrated across tertiary education that would also encourage greater participation. If you come from a background of disadvantage, flexibility and an eye on the bottom line in terms of career uplift are only natural.

Second, at most institutions, teams trying to widen participation amongst left-behind communities often play a poor second fiddle to better resourced Equality, Diversity and Inclusion teams. Whilst avoiding a zero-sum ‘oppression Olympics’, proactive and evidence led approaches are obviously needed in addressing inequality and inclusivity and in guiding funds and attention where they are needed most.

More focus is also needed on the signals that university values and leadership send to our most disadvantaged communities. Following the tragic killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, a number of universities have adopted the language of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as the official ideology. For CRT theorists, white people are structurally privileged (‘white privilege’), and to deny these charges is to display what is called ‘white fragility’ – a further sign of one’s guilt, and proof of systemic racism.

Advance HE, one of the UK’s leading higher educational charities, has been in receipt of over 23 million pounds of government grants since 2015. Their UK-wide workshops draw on the teachings of Critical Race Theory (CRT) to show how it ‘can help advance change in our universities’ and now run workshops promoting CRT.

Aside from being totally divorced from the reality of UK higher education, the key question the Education Committee needs to ask is: what kind of signal does the endorsement of these kinds of ideas send to these left behind communities? How has it come to be that white working class kids have faced decades of disadvantage, and yet now also face a seeming blanket endorsement of ideas of their ‘white privilege’? Something is deeply broken here, and it needs to be fixed very soon.

This is compounded at our most selective ‘high tariff’ institutions. We need much clearer benchmarking around access, where these problems are especially acute. In our world-leading Russell Group universities, the participation gap remains huge. Young people from the most represented backgrounds were 3.91 times more likely to participate at high-tariff providers than the least represented.

In attempting to address this, the Office for Students has set longer term targets to close this gap by 2039, but surely more can be done to bring this longer term goal much closer given the social costs of not doing so? Universities respond very well to structural incentives, and perhaps identifying regional champions to help push the levelling up agenda would be the way forward.

Whatever is chosen, whilst talent is spread throughout the UK, opportunity is not. In what is a strategic necessity in post-Brexit Britain’s changing political economy, let us spread opportunity to capitalise on that talent and build the future anew.

Doug Stokes: The Conservatives must rally to the flag of the Enlightenment tradition as the culture wars rage

20 Sep

Doug Stokes is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter.

Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the Conservative Party is waking up to the importance of the ‘culture wars’. These struggles over meaning will only grow in significance as the UK charts its post-Brexit destiny, itself intimately bound up with questions of culture and identity. How can a nation know what it wants if it does not know what it is?

On the Left, ‘woke’ politics, with its binary worldview of moral certainty, sin, guilt and deconstructive redemption through Western self-erasure is more akin to a secular theology than a programme of political transformation. It offers little to the vast majority of the British people who are sick of its banal virtue signalling, and the open contempt of its high priests in the media, universities and throughout British institutional life.

The Labour Party now faces a likely irreconcilable balancing act, insofar as it must bring together its hyper-woke graduate middle-class activist base and the socially conservative and now ‘Blue Wall’ former Labour voters. Keit Starmer will have to learn to do the impossible: to bend his knee whilst climbing walls.

For its part, the Conservative Party should plant its flag firmly within the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom and equality of opportunity. Coupled with a progressive patriotism, this would be a winning cultural formula, and essentially pushes at an open door. Moreover, it would bring together its ‘levelling up’ agenda with a collective story that binds and unifies and links the past with the present to map a future.

There is both a party political but much more important existential element to the increasingly ‘hot’ culture wars. In party political terms, if the Conservatives fail to grasp this nettle, a new party to its right may well do so. At the moment, there is a political vacuum, amplified by its flaccid response to Black Lives Matter riots and continued assaults on the nation’s heritage and history.

Of more pressing existential import is the dangerous game being played by leftist ‘woke’ theologians. From what is little more than anti-white racism peddled by ‘critical race theorists’ and their ‘white privilege’ useful idiots in our universities, media and boardrooms, new forms of divisive thinking predicated around racial interest articulation are beginning to emerge. Preaching to gullible white liberals about their alleged privilege is an easy sell, and this seems to be the underlying gamble: guilt-tripping will help lead to political change.

However, beyond the BBC, lecture halls and other privileged islands, guilt will likely not go very far. It is hard to see how the woke priesthood’s catechism of privilege and self-flagellation will be received in such places as Rotherham. Failure to contain this genie, released by the explosive assault on British identity, places our valuable multicultural dispensation in grave peril. The twin crises of Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic have justifiably meant the party has been slow off the blocks in recognising this, but it must not linger for much longer.

At the moment, we are living through a unique structural moment in British politics. Strategically, the party should restructure elements of our legal-institutional matrix, much of which underpins the left’s culture war arsenal. Failure to do so will mean that whilst the Conservatives are in power, its exercise will be stymied time after time, and in the culture wars at least, conservatives will suffer a death of a thousand cuts.

What are the elements of this matrix? On the one hand, the party faces a largely left-hegemonic institutionalised ‘fifth column’, composed of quangos and assorted charities. Despite their hyperbole, the UK remains one of the most socially progressive societies on earth, as even a cursory glance at most data metrics show very clearly.

However, these entities have both a bureaucratic and economic self-interest in evidencing ‘forever’ grievance narratives that feed the left’s culture war. For over a decade, various Tory chancellors have pumped billions into these bodies. Why?

Crucially, in a market of diminishing inequality, these ‘social justice’ organisations and theorists have evolved and adapted to new market realities with often Orwellian conceptual innovations to evidence injustice and thus drive political change and their continued funding. From junk science mandatory tests for unconscious biases in corporate boardrooms to students being paid to police alleged unintentional micro-aggressions in our universities, forms of embedded egalitarianism are often illiberal and increasingly authoritarian.

A ‘grievance industrial complex’ exists to evidence the above, but in a market of diminishing inequality, the complex must adapt with ever more bizarre and illiberal conceptual innovations to make sure demand for one’s services is maintained in the context of a diminishing supply of injustice.

Philosophically, this grievance industry deliberately conflates equal outcomes with equal opportunities. The script is familiar. If there’s an unequal outcome, anywhere and at any point, likely explanatory variables are ignored in favour of an amorphous ‘systemic’ conspiracy to reproduce a system of discrimination. It does not matter that this ‘systemic’ conspiracy is totally at odds with readily available data on the incredible financial, educational and cultural advances of the UK’s diverse population.

Conveniently, ‘justice’ is achieved by a redistributive agent of technocrats to intervene to impose equal outcomes in the name of social justice and to combat this ‘systemic’ conspiracy. Similar to the USSR, this conception shifts debates from an examination of underlying processes that allow humans to participate equally to one of top down imposition to achieve outcome parity, usually by a self-interested elite that has a self-interest in mission creep and the maintenance of their power.

The Conservative Party must reboot its philosophical thinking around this crucial distinction: there has been a dangerous and lazy drift across British institutional life from equality of opportunity that is entirely consistent and optimal for a functional market democracy to one of equity or equality of outcomes.

To the extent that the latter conception wins out over the former, conservatives will keep losing battle after battle in what is in fact an ever hotter and ongoing value-conflict raging within the anglophone West.

Of far more strategic significance however, is the foundation upon which this grievance industrial complex sits. It is quite shocking that, after ten years of Conservatives in government, the Equality Act of 2010 has been left totally unreformed.

Although this legislation was intended to safeguard access to equal opportunities, it has in fact morphed into the central juridical weapon of the left. In particular, section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 – the Public Sector Equality duty – has breathed into being an army of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officials across huge swathes of national life.

Through mission creep, this has imposed huge costs on our public sector, helped shift social discourse to one of outcome equality as being the central metric and weaponized the duty to ‘foster good relations’ to transform organisational cultures in often highly illiberal ways.

No doubt the ‘optics’ of reform will be seized on by political opponents, but this is why the party should bundle this up within a much broader cultural offering: a reassertion of the primacy of the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom of speech and conscience and equality of all before the law, regardless of creed, class or colour.

It is these values that have helped challenge dogma, champion freedom and defend those gains once made. These are now under radical assault, with those questioning the orthodoxies of the ‘great awokening’ often targeted for harassment and censure. The Conservative Party should lay a firm claim to the enlightenment tradition and let that be its lodestar in the culture wars. Failure to do so will place our current dispensation in deep peril; it is time to wake up.