Dead Men Left

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

More unequal, less meritocratic

Spangly New Labour doesn't care about boring old-fashioned equality. It prefers, in best Third Way style, equality of opportunity. If Britain after eight years of alleged Labour government is now a less equitable society than under Margaret Thatcher, that may simply reflect the fact that skills and talents are more justly rewarded now. These are distributed unequally and so rewards are distributed unequally. (Bear with me.) At the very least, talented individuals from lower-income backgrounds have more chance of prospering due to the expansion of higher education, the provision of incentives to work, and the New Deal. We should be looking at social mobility, not boring social equality.

Even on those minimal and not easily-supported terms New Labour has demonstrably failed to deliver. The significant expansion of higher education under the Tories, with students facing an increasingly adverse system of loans and diminshing grants, acted to reduce social mobility. One recent report, from the Centre for Economic Performance, summarises its findings in shocked tones (PDF file):

... The effect of cognitive ability on educational attainment has actually decreased, while the role of parental social class and income in determining educational attainment has increased. In other words the British education system has become less meritocratic. A person’s ability is a poorer predictor of how well they do in educational terms now... than in the past.

Likewise, the social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously. This is all the more surprising given the attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s (and indeed ever since) to expand and broaden access to education... Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged.

New Labour fixed a target of 50% university attendance for 18-30 year olds by 2010. It has transformed the system of higher education funding, allegedly to prevent (in higher education minister Margaret Hodge's phrase), the ""dustmen subsidising the doctor" whilst ensuring the expansion of university places was adequately funded. The removal of the grant and the introduction of tuition fees were presented as eminently social-democratic measures, that only the dread "forces of conservatism" would oppose. (How that phrase brings back New Labour's halcyon days. What a cocky bastard Blair was back then.)

As the report quoted above shows, increasing university places whilst raising the economic barriers to participation makes the tendency for the "dustmen" to "subsidise the doctor" worse. New Labour's policy on higher education - expansion, with increasing burdens placed on the individual student - could not be any worse if they were intending to improve "equalities of opportunity".

After nearly seven years of compulsory university fees, it is becoming possible to assess the damage. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's (Hefce) most recent report on the matter suggests a deep and persistent divide remains in university attendance:

The report sets out the proportion of school leavers from each of 8,000 wards who progressed to higher education, revealing a picture of divided cities where areas next to each other geographically are a world apart when it comes to children's life chances. Most of the new places created at universities have gone to young people from middle class areas.

At parliamentary constituency level glaring contrasts are clear across the country. In Sheffield, for instance, David Blunkett's Brightside constituency sent only 8% of 18-year-olds to higher education in 2000 - the lowest in the country...

The participation rate in Kensington and Chelsea is 79%, followed by City and Westminster on 65% and the well-heeled Glasgow suburb of Eastwood on 63%, where more than 1,100 students gained university places.

Postcode area, as a proxy for parental income, is a huge determining factor on university attendance. Whilst Hefce claim that the system of tuition fees and loans have made no difference to university entrance, they appear to have markedly skewed drop-out rates, soaring in recent years, with students from manual working class and lower income households noticeably more likely to leave university without a degree.

University expansion on these terms has played a significant role in decreasing social mobility. Stephen Machin uses an index of "intergenerational mobility" to show that those born into the lowest income households in 1970 are more likely to remain in the lowest income group than those born in 1958. Conversely, fewer of the very rich now slip down the income scale. The very crudest class divisions in society – those along income – have become more impermeable over the last few decades. (See his contribution to The Labour Market Under New Labour, 2003.) New Labour's university reforms, by reinforcing the link between parental income and the completion of a degree, will only strengthen that tendency.

For restricting access to and participation in higher education, and for building a society that is not only more inegalitarian than previously, but offers less "equality of opportunity" than previously, Polly Toynbee will sacrifice 100,000 Iraqis. Splendid!