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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post is part of an ongoing series where I intend to develop my full personal (not institutional) response to the HE Green Paper. Comments are welcome to refine this.

The Green Paper asks in Question 1:

a) What are your views on the potential equality impacts of the proposals and other plans in this consultation?

b) Are there any equality impacts that we have not considered?

Provisional response to part a:

It is admirable that so much attention has been given in the Green Paper to equality and diversity. It is one of the better parts of the document. It is also extremely pleasing that the Green Paper recognises the benefits of giving the opportunity to study at Higher Education level to anyone who so wishes. However, there are a number of areas where the suggested routes do not live up to the rhetoric.

Firstly, the Green Paper problematically separates economic disadvantage from rhetorics of diversity. The scrapping of student maintenance grants for the poorest university students in the 2015 Budget, for example, is a clear instance where student diversity will be discouraged by government policy, rather than by the actions of universities.

Secondly, the Green Paper often places too much emphasis on what universities can do. While it is right and proper that universities work to ensure the broadest and most diverse student bodies, the Green Paper acknowledges that “prior educational attainment is the key factor in determining progression”. In other words, the Green Paper explicitly acknowledges that there is a systemic problem in education for the disadvantaged that kicks in well before university. For this reason, the “name blind” recruitment strategy will not help. The “name blind” strategy seems to assume that the key problem at admissions is that tutors are individual racists. While, certainly, unconscious bias can play a role, “name blind” admissions may be taken as a false panacea for systemic societal disadvantage in education, which runs along socio-economic lines.

Thirdly, I am concerned by the proposed link between TEF success and fee increases. As the primary factors affecting diversity are often socio-economic, there is a perverse feedback cycle here whereby those who provide the best teaching will be allowed to charge more to attend, thereby deterring those from less prosperous backgrounds. While bursaries can help here, this feels like a regressive return to an era of philanthropy and occasional handouts, rather than an attempt to redress disadvantage and to provide everyone with an opportunity, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

On page 36 of the report, there is also a problematic statement:

HEFCE recently published a report on the causes of differences in student outcomes, which included a focus on black and minority ethnic students. The report contained a set of recommendations, and the Government will look to HEFCE to take these forward with the sector.

Given that the Green Paper calls for the abolition of HEFCE, it is unclear which body will take forward these recommendations.

Provisional response to part b:

There are two equality impacts that have not been adequately considered in the Green Paper. These pertain to part-time and mature students (especially with respect to ELQ) and to institutional staff, via postgraduate funding.

In the first instance, the Green Paper is very bad at implying that all students are 18-year olds fresh out of school. There are twelve mentions of “young people” throughout the document but only two mentions of “mature students”. But students should be encouraged from across all age ranges, as the recent changes to part-time access in the Comprehensive Spending Review recognised. This implicit assumption in the Paper should be addressed.

Furthermore, given that the Green Paper places such a high emphasis on universities serving the needs of “employers” (42 references in the document), it makes no sense that there is such poor support for mature and part-time students. Surely, if the Paper believes that there is a societal training element at work here in university-level study then people must be able to re-train at any point. If there is to be “no artificial limit on aspiration” then why should age or the existence of a previous qualification be a barrier to self-reinvention? However, this neglect is only the latest in a long series of policy decisions that have damaged this demographic. The withdrawal of teaching funding for equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQs) in 2008-2009 was the worst instance of this. This was followed by the inability of ELQ and part-time students to have equal access to student loans. If the government is serious about increasing diversity, this demographic cannot be ignored. It is also clear that although the Green Paper makes many statements about students being able to attend courses in the manner that best suits them, the fact that ELQ students cannot access student loans (and that the loan system is inflexible for part-time students) makes a mockery of this. Mature and part-time learners must be empowered to attend degree courses. This must include equal access to loans regardless of ELQs and mode of study. While parts of these problems were addressed in the spending review, the Green Paper should also reflect this.

Secondly, the Green Paper makes no reference to the diversity of staff at institutions. A recent study found that there are only 17 black female professors in the whole of the UK. This is shocking and it is a result of the fact that access to postgraduate study and then progression through academic career pathways is far harder for certain demographics, be it for socio-economic reasons, biased gender expectations (parental responsibility still primarily falling on women) or on grounds of ethnic backgrounds. This is intensified among intersectional demographics. There are also inequalities of pay in this respect. Diversity in Higher Education should not just extend to undergraduate student bodies, but also to postgraduate levels and to staff. The final policy should extend its thinking into access to postgraduate courses and then into institutional staffing and career progression.