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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.

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

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