We have all before us: a new university and equality or a winter of darkness

With the national period of mourning officially over, normal political discourse has resumed. There are now calls for a suitable tribute to mark the Queen’s passing and no doubt many ideas will circulate. There is anticipation that the Carolean era will bring renewed hope and an impetus for change. But this will be a difficult challenge with the economic situation deteriorating and an uncertain government favouring a high risk strategy. A major initiative to support less advantaged students would be a fitting tribute at this time.

Calls for a permanent ‘monument’ to mark the passing of the Elizabethan era are circulating in many media outlets. Some are trivial but others are more substantial. They range from a permanent bank holiday to a statue on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Sited beneath the towering column honouring Nelson, this might be seen to be insufficient and a secondary addition to the existing lions.

Others are likely to insist on a much larger, independent, and free-standing monument to be erected. This could he something that would herald a drive for a fairer society that aligns with King Charles’s ‘Princes Trust’ founded ten years ago. It has helped over one million young people so far with the pledge that “We believe that every young person should have the chance to embrace exciting opportunities”.  Extending this idea to more support for those with fewer advantages in higher education would have a lasting impact fit for out time

A new Queen’s university.

One attractive idea would be to create a new Queen Elizabeth university. This was proposed by the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) last week with ‘How higher education changed during the Queen’s reign – and why we should now consider establishing a new university in her name’. Certainly, this would appear to be a solid proposal that might gain some traction. But would it be counter to current government thinking that appears to deter students from the traditional university route and divert them into technical training?

The author, Hick Hillman, who is the director of HEPI, has consistently called for increase in higher education student places to match the expanding demographic trend as more young people aspire to enter the system. Rachel Hewitt of HEPI estimated in 2020 that 350,000 extra full-time places for students from England will be needed by  2035  (Demand for Higher Education to 2035). A new, and large university, is certainly a good idea for expansion of numbers, but is it enough of a tribute to the longest reigning monarch in our history? Maybe not alone.

The move would also have to be something that sets it apart from earlier tributes to monarchs. After all, we already have Queen’s University Belfast, founded during the reign of Victoria, Queen Mary University of London, renamed marking the Queen Consort from 1910 to 1936 and King’s College London, named after King George IV. More distant in time is the origin of the name of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. This is a post 92 university that was renamed as a college in 1972 after the Scottish Saint Margaret who was queen consort of Scotland from 1070 to 1093. Should we therefore take Queen Elizabeth to a higher level than these examples? After 70 years, many will say yes.

Another idea to mark the reign.

If a new university was to be established, it would take considerable time from planning to opening.  It would be better if something more urgent, and permanent could be instigated.  Better still, if the expansion of student numbers was especially promoted for the least advantaged by offering then more support. The aim being to achieve parity across the social disadvantage landscape in a short time. TEFS observed in 2018 that levelling up access to higher education was moving at snail’s pace and “Even if the trend of an almost insignificant narrowing of the so called access ‘gap’ for the last seven years continues, we might see parity by the year 2204AD if we are lucky (TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’). A major initiative started now could address this much faster.

Bring back student grants.

The proposal here is a return to means tested maintenance grants for students. To cement them into foundations of the higher education system, they should be called the ‘Elizabeth II Awards’.  The new university proposed by Hillman could be founded on the principle of only accepting students in receipt of such awards and be a shining example of what can be achieved. This would send a message that echoes the ‘Robbins Principle’ that Higher Education “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”.

A fitting tribute to Queen Elizabeth.

During the early years of the reign of Elizabeth II, there was a rapid expansion of higher education under both Labour and Conservative governments. The increasing need for a larger skilled workforce, driven by many more graduates, was the main force behind the expanding post-war economy.  Pivotal to this were the recommendations of the Robbins Committee on Higher Education Report of 1963 that set out a template for extensive expansion by  subsequent governments. These were bold moves that offered hope to people seeking a better life.

Associated with this was a recognition that students from families with fewer advantages would need some funding to sustain themselves. This was delivered unevenly by individual local education authorities at their discretion after the war. Crucially the Education Act of 1962 brought in a common and mandatory means tested system across the whole of UK. This lasted for many years and became the mainstay of university access. Although a contribution to fees was introduced  by the Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998, following the Dearing Report  of 1997, means-tested maintenance grants remained solidly embedded. 

This lasted until the Browne Review of 2010 that heralded high fees, bigger loans and expanding student numbers. After being frozen for several years, maintenance grants were finally abolished for new students in 2016/17.  This led onto the  Augar report of 2019 that was part of a move to reel in the unfettered expansion of Higher Education since 2012.  Greater loan burdens were carried by the least advantaged and the system favoured those of greater means.

Other models that set a precedent.

If we need a better model that we could aspire to in the UK, we might look no further than the USA. The federal government introduced awards to support students of lesser means through the Higher Education Act  of 1965 and introduction of the ‘Basic Educational Opportunity Grant’.  This mirrored on a larger scale the ideas being developed in the UK to standardise the level off support across all local education authorities.

The awards in the USA were renamed ‘Pell Grants’ in 1980 in honour of the veteran Senator Claiborne Pell, who championed their introduction from the outset. This was a move that embedded the idea of grants in the system by linking them to the name of a respected leader. Despite different administrations since 1965 making cuts to the real value of the grants, they remain in place today.  Some states offer further assistance to students, but this is not always readily available or evenly spread across the USA. This means that increasing numbers of Pell Grant recipients must take out loans and take on part-time jobs to supplement the awards. However, President Biden announced recently that $20,000 of debt would be written-off  for all Pell Grant recipients and offered a range of other relief measures. This simple move will inject over £321 billion into the economy. It’s a massive investment that will stimulate growth of the economy and represents a genuine ‘levelling up’ across the country.

In contrast, the UK is falling far behind this ideal and the difference between support in the UK, especially England, and the USA are widening as fast as the debt burden is rising. TEFS considered this in 2020 with a comparison of two similar sized cities, London and Los Angeles, in ‘Working through college: A tale of two cities’ (3rd July 2020).  In California, there are additional Cal Grants, managed by the California Student Aid Commission. There are also grants for students who have been in care and so-called ‘Middle Class Scholarships’ for students from families with more income and assets.  However, despite this, costs are rising faster than Federal and State aid can match, and there is a considerable burden of part-time employment loaded onto more that half of the students. However, the US federal government is doing something about it. The UK government is just a bystander.

No excuse for failure of the UK to act.

If student numbers are to increase, this is best achieved through increasing the numbers of students from less advantaged backgrounds.  The current skewing of access in favour of the better off is effectively squandering the wider ‘pool of ability’ described my Robbins back in 1963. There is no excuse for continuing with this.

California is not ideal by any definition. But it is seeking to support its students to a greater degree than the UK. This might go some way to explain its success as a state. California alone is the fifth-largest economy in the world with an estimated population of 39.6 million in 2019 and a GDP of $3.26 trillion (US Government Spending Estimate 2020). This was estimated to be $70,662 per capita in 2019 rising from $55,149 in 2010 (Statista), In contrast, the UK has a larger population of 66.8 million with a smaller total GDP of $2.61 trillion (derived from Office for National Statistics 2019 estimates). This was estimated to be $40,392 per capita (Statista) rising marginally from $39,122 in 2010. The austerity measures of the UK government over that period are clear and evident in the slow GDP progress. However, there is no doubt that both economies are amongst the richest in the world and the latent potential in the UK could be released with the right strategy.

Simple choices to be made.

The UK is at a major turning point in its history. Leaving the EU and failing to secure strategic trade deals elsewhere has presented a clear and present danger to the economy. The cost of Covid and then conflict adds to the burden. But the one asset we have is our people and the level of their education. There are clear choices here. Failure to invest in education across the whole population is a poor choice if it favours mostly the economically advantaged.  Instead, equality of opportunity and support will lay the foundation for a better future across a broader social and economic range.  That is genuine ‘levelling up’. The choice is simple, we must aim for the ‘spring of hope’ and not the ‘winter of despair’

Set just before the French revolution and a brutal European war, the Charles Dickens 1859 novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ opened with,

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”. 

There are choices and we should aim to take the path of peace and equality for all or face revolution and conflict that could have been avoided. We have everything before us.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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