White working-class boys and university access: aspiration or desperation? What is going wrong?

It seems there’s a lot going wrong, and its not just to do with the ‘misfortune’ of being white, working-class and a boy.  The government is determined to target this group with a campaign to improve their university ‘aspirations’.  Universities are expected to deliver this much improved access. But the reality is much more complex and likely to confound this approach. It will take a lot more in terms of resources to fix. Mixing up disadvantage, race and gender in the same pot also displays the lack of a coherent strategy.  With a response to Augar still in the wings, there are many urgent questions to answer about the future of universities (TEFS 8th November 2021 ‘Where is the government going with Higher Education?’). Then there is the  unexplained delay in the ‘levelling up’ white paper promised in May. There are suspicions in many quarters that there is a concerted effort to obscure a social policy that will reinforce social divisions.  Regardless of gender, race or disadvantage, a clearer expression of a determination to foster equality and opportunity would be easier to understand.  Unless the aim is to instead distract attention and generate confusion while ‘working-class’ boys stare down a dark time tunnel to their future as workers.

The issue of too few white ‘working-class’ boys getting into our universities surfaced again this week, starting in the Mail on Sunday with, ‘Nadhim Zahawi launches bid to get universities to take in more white working-class boys’.  It seems the Education Secretary noticed the reports during the year, such as the Education Committee inquiry ‘Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged’ backgrounds’, that were pushing for something to be done. Yet this problem has been around for so long it has seeped into the core of our society. Zahawi’s ‘solution’ followed a similar pattern of other announcements that are softening us up for their response to Augar due ‘soon’.  He simply bats the ball into the university gully and expects them run after it. He wants the Office for Students  (OfS) to set a target and thus implicate universities in blame for a much wider deeply ingrained social malfunction.

The response from Zahawi is triggered by the release reports last week. The Sutton Trust  issued a report aimed at the OfS regulator, ‘Moving in the right direction: Social mobility and university access’ on 24th November 2021, ‘Universities and Social Mobility’ (.pdf).  The role of a university degree in promoting social mobility from free school meals up to age sixteen to salary at age thirty is clear and unambiguous. 

The advice to the new Director for Fair Access at the Office for Students,  John Blake, is clearly set out in  data about the access of ‘disadvantaged students’  to our university ‘providers’ in rank order.  Zahawi  is also mindful of the OfS report the following day and the likely effectiveness of university plans in ‘Access and participation plan monitoring outcomes for 2019-20’.  

From aspiration to desperation.

The oft paraphrased adage by Thomas Edison is presented to most laboratory scientists at the start of their careers as “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.  Here, the driving force behind students seeking to do better might be best described as a variable mix of perspiration and desperation. Yet the government seems stuck on the idea that ‘aspiration’ is the key and that universities can fix this at low cost. This could not be further from reality.

In their letter to the Office for Students on 23rd November 2021, Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan and Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, stressed the inclusion of ‘working-class’ boys in university widening participation targets. “Increasing pupils’ aspirations” is apparently the way to do this.

“Universities can play a key role, and have a key interest, in raising school standards, increasing pupils’ aspirations, and levelling the playing field for future students across the country.”

However a subsequent article by David Woolley ‘The pervasive belief in low aspirations could undermine the Government’s ‘reboot’ of widening the doors to higher education’ (Higher Education Policy Institute 2nd December 2021) expertly demolishes the idea that “low aspirations among the disadvantaged”  is the cause of low participation in higher education by ‘working-class’ boys. Back in 2020, TEFS also criticised this assumption with “The emphasis is too often put onto less tangible reasons such as lack of aspiration” and suggested, “The first thing to do is to separate lack of resources and poverty away from the real scandal of racial discrimination. Using the term ‘White’ at the outset simply confuses the two issues. Then, accept that aspiration and encouragement from family and schools is of little value if not matched by access to resources.” (TEFS 19th October 2020 ‘Chasing the bus: White, disadvantaged and left behind’). Seeking to increase ‘aspirations’ may not cost much, and appear as a ‘good try’, but there is no evidence that this has any effect.

Back in 2019, TEFS reported on initiatives in Scotland, and the Scottish Government’s Fair Access Framework, with ‘Building a Fair Access Framework: Hitting the nail on the head’ .  ‘Raising aspirations’ is not even considered in their ‘toolkit’. Instead, more expensive mentoring and ‘Bursaries, Scholarships and Grants’ are shown to be “A very high cost intervention, with extensive evidence, which suggests it may have a positive impact”.  David Woolley also brings attention to similar evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation and TASO toolkits where “aspiration raising activity is not shown to be effective”.  This comes as no surprise to those who interact directly with students since there is no evidence that low aspiration is a big problem.  From my experience, I agree totally with the observation of Woolley who says, I have never met a parent or pupil who does not want better for themselves, but I have met plenty who have not had the means (money, knowledge, capital) to access it”. Access to resources is the main bottleneck and it cannot be fixed cheaply.

Acting on the evidence.

What Zahawi fails to recognise is that the Sutton Trust report relates to ‘disadvantaged’ students and that the post92 universities carry the greatest burden in helping them.  But who are these ‘disadvantaged’ students that are labelled ‘working-class’?  There are different measures to identify them, such as the POLAR designation, based simply on their home post-code and participation rates. The Sutton Trust study is more rigorous in defining them as “students who were eligible for Free School Meals at age 16”.  They considered the ‘access rate’ of these students to our universities.  The ‘success rate’ is presented as the “proportion of this group who then entered the top 20% of incomes at age 30”. These students are truly disadvantaged as they must progress through life with no family ‘safety net’. 

Zahawi will also be well aware of the Education Committee report earlier this year in June, ‘Forgotten’ White working-class pupils let down by decades of neglect’ and the response from the Government in October, ‘The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’. The definition of ‘working-class’ in their eyes is that of disadvantage and free school meals. It is explained by “Throughout this paper, the term ‘disadvantaged pupils’ is used interchangeably with the term ‘pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM)’”.  But even this report acknowledges that “Drawing accurate conclusions is also difficult when we consider the term “White working-class”. The term occurred spontaneously in written evidence, and from witnesses, and is widely used to refer to disadvantaged White pupils”. This is noted in the written evidence that further compounds the tendency to mix up ‘working-class’ with ‘disadvantage. The National Literacy Trust indicated many reports “tend to use FSM eligibility interchangeably with the term ‘working-class’”. Universities UK explained that “There is no single definition in what constitutes a pupil as being from a ‘working-class’ background (a term often used in media reporting of attainment gaps). But then then take a stab at it with “Universities draw on a range of measures including being from a low participation neighbourhood (LPN) and level of parental education”.

It therefore seems the old classifications of socioeconomic groupings might be redundant in this context. Currently the  eight groups (excluding full-time students) range from ‘Higher managerial/administrative/professional‘ to ‘Never worked/long-term unemployed’ going back to the 2011 census.  The conclusion then was that “people from the White ethnic group made up a lower share of those classed as ‘never worked and long-term unemployed’ (at 71.1%) than their share of the general population (86.0%)”. However, “people from the Asian and Black groups made up a higher share of the ‘never worked and long-term unemployed’ group (at 17.5% and 6.2% respectively) than their share of the general population (7.5% and 3.3% respectively)”.  The next ten year 2021 census is still being processed  and it will be interesting to see if the situation has improved during the government’s tenure.

What is the term ‘working-class’ and why use it?

It seems even those in government are equally confused by what ‘working-class’ might mean.  The liberal use of the term for disadvantaged students, who have been in receipt of free school meals, is clearly wrong and even appears as deliberately misleading in headlines and official report titles. Confining the disadvantage to ‘boys’ is even more strange. This may be down to a combination of ‘middle class myopia’ and a steady diet of class-based political indoctrination.  The only conclusion appears to be that ‘working-class’ means whatever you want it to mean. To some its means anyone who needs to work for an income as opposed to living on interest and dividends from accumulated wealth and capital.  But many disadvantaged students, measured as those on free school meals or living in less advantaged postcode areas, are from non-working families reliant on benefits.  Indeed, there are also many families struggling on low incomes topped up by ‘universal credit’.  These could be ‘working-class’ in some eyes. The government, however, has decided to redefine ‘disadvantaged’ as ‘working class’.  They are wedded to the idea that ‘working-class’ is synonymous with ‘disadvantage’ and poverty. The reason behind this is somewhat baffling. It seems there is a tacit acceptance that most working people are expected to live in poverty.

Working class and free school meals.

There are many working families struggling to make ends meet and increasing numbers do so without access to free school meals (FSM) for their children. Those who do benefit find this assistance is stopped at age sixteen when they head for colleges and more education. This is a key time for extra family support to be made available, not less. But this is clearly not how it works in the benefits system.

The rules of eligibility for free-school meals changed in 2018 under the universal credit roll out.  A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in April 2018 ‘Free school meals under universal credit’ looked ahead to the impact of the policy. By fixing the family income threshold for FSM at £7,400 the IFS calculated that 50,000 more children overall would be entitled in future. However, the sting in the tail was that 160,000 children, who would have qualified under the old system, became ineligible. Are we to assume these families are no longer ‘working-class’ as a result?  Nadhim Zahawi clearly knows the answer since he was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families in 2018.

It’s a question of numbers.

The rationale behind concentrating on white ‘disadvantaged’ students, and ‘boys’ in particular, is a little clearer when the scale of the numbers involved is brought into focus.  This was clearly illustrated in a research report by the Sutton Trust in 2016, ‘Class differences: Ethnicity and disadvantage’ that used 2015 data.  The numbers of students, male and female, eligible for free school meals entering GCSE was much greater amongst ‘white British’ as seen in Figure 1. It is unlikely the situation has changed much in the intervening years.

Yet, despite the greater numbers involved, very few universities have set a target for taking in white working-class males, indeed also females The proportion ending up in higher education by age nineteen is as low as 21.6%.  Even then, targeted financial support for such students is thin on the ground.

Zahawi has access to a considerable amount of such research and analysis and should be able to react to this. He will also have noticed that the absolute numbers are more significant in terms of votes than the proportions of each ethnic group.

Yet its strange that he restricts his view to ‘boys’ when the problem is a much wider one based on social advantages.

What about ‘girls’?

They seem to be missing in many of the arguments. Whilst white ‘working-class’ boys come very low in the university access league, the ‘working-class’ girls are not far behind. As an aside, I am uncomfortable calling them ‘girls’ and it follows that using the term ‘boys’ is also uncomfortable. They are destined to be students and I always saw them as young men and women when teaching.

The research by the Sutton Trust also illustrated this well in its 2016 report ‘Class differences: Ethnicity and disadvantage’.  Figure 2 taken from the report shows the attainment gap in GCSEs between the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ eligible for free school meals. In every ethnic group, the girls do better than the boys and this means there is a more worrying gender gap.   

Bringing race into the frame.

The decision to seek a resolution to the problem appears to muddle, race and gender with disadvantage. Any study clearly shows that ‘disadvantage’ has an overarching effect on all groups.  This is compounded by some media reports, such as that in the Daily Mail on 14th September 2021 who looked across the ‘end of cycle’ UCAS data set just released. In ‘White boys are ONLY group to see fall in places at university as numbers drop by 10% in seven years’. They pick out an example that shows the “Number of white men getting on degree courses has fallen almost ten per cent” since 2014. They are correct as the data is presented in numbers and not percentages. This is a trend that has continued with the overall number of white males accepted to a university falling from 127,330 in 2020 to 127,250 this year. However, these figures are not corrected for the population size changes of each ethnic group. That would be more difficult to do. The most reliable data on the populations of different ethnic groups in the UK is based upon the census carried out every ten years. The last was in 2011 and the latest was carried out this year (with Scotland delaying until 2022 because of COVID). We await the results and they could explain everything.

However, the general trend for many years has been that the total numbers of White British are falling. Between the census of 2001 and 2011, they fell by nearly 7% from 87.4% to 80.5% (‘Population of England and Wales – GOV.UK Ethnicity facts and figures’ updated 7th August 2020).  However, in contrast, the population from a Black African background doubled from 0.9% to 1.8% over the same time. Back then, the only White group that increased was those from elsewhere in the EU whose share of the population went from 2.6% to 4.4%. Note that many of these were from Poland. The impact of their depletion due to Brexit since 2016 would be considerable. 

Final word.

It is obvious that we should not jump to conclusions about race with respect to university access.  Worse still, we should not mix up ‘working-class’ with ‘disadvantage’.

The situation is complex with disadvantage driven by ‘racism’ a real thing for those on the receiving end.  It should not be dismissed or covered up. In April of this year, TEFS responded strongly to the final report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED)  with ‘Covering a tangled web of racial bias, poverty, and inequality with whitewash’. There was fierce opposition to the CRED findings and the BBC reported ‘UK not deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities’. This conclusion was achieved by redefining ‘institutional racism’ in a poorly concealed ‘sleight of hand’.

Amazingly, the potential impact of universities was left out of the CRED report, despite the potential for discrimination and holding back minority groups being most acute in education. The goal of getting to a university is one clear step in defining success. Meeting equal treatment and equal opportunity, with no bias or racism, while there is sometimes assumed. But it could not be further from the truth. Yet the CRED commission report omitted to investigate this aspect. The lack of involvement of Universities UK (UUK), who represent all universities in the UK, was inexplicable. That three of the commission’s members were appointed as racial harassment advisors to UUK last year makes this even stranger. Their report from November 2020, ‘Tackling racial harassment in higher education’, is one of many.

A final word goes to David Gillborn of the University of Birmingham who expressed this concern well in the Guardian (23rd June 2021) with ‘How white working-class underachievement has been used to demonise antiracism’. In responding to the Education Committee report ‘Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged’ backgrounds’ he said,

“The MPs’ report muddles the term ‘white privilege’ and is part of a campaign to keep people angry at the wrong target”.

Perhaps that was the aim all along.

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