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Fighting inequality with higher education

When given the right support, higher education can significantly help to re-balance society 

At both the major parties’ conferences this year, the future of higher education (HE) and who participates in it featured prominently as an issue. However, while each party has polices designed to catch the young person's eye by making HE cheaper, neither is offering, as yet, a vision for HE in early 21st century Britain.

Central to this vision should be the contribution that HE can make to reducing inequality. HE leaders at the conferences were candid about the torrid time experiences within HE recently. One way to flip the perception of HE back to where it should be i.e. as a force for good for individuals and communities, is to unleash its ability to affect inequality. Some essential ingredients of such a vision are listed below:

Make HE a local leader on inequality

The contribution that HE makes to local areas is usually framed purely in economic terms. HE providers have a unique ability to be leaders of collaborative efforts aiding the development of local cross-sector initiatives to address educational inequality. A clear example of this is the University of Derby who are leading the government’s Social Mobility Opportunity Area for Derby.

A fair finance system

This means restoring maintenance grants for low-income students, and reducing fees to at least £3000 for full time undergraduate study. It also means looking at reforming the apprenticeship levy so that employers contribute to the development of staff at all levels, not only at the apprenticeship level.

Commit to ending differences in HE participation and success

Scotland has committed to ensuring by 2030 20 per cent of HE students are from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds. Similar long term targets are required for England but should include not just participation, but success during time spent in HE, and then progression into graduate employment for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Unleash the power of students

Hugely increase the numbers of students working as mentors with younger pupils and in community-based projects. Such work helps both young people attain higher standards at school, and students to develop skills which help in their studies and post-HE. This “service learning” could easily become a statutory part of many students’ courses, and by paying students to undertake this work it enables them to cut down on other low-paid part-time work, which minimises their ability to succeed in HE.

Change what HE means

The lack of flexibility in what the system offers restricts access. Any restructuring of the finance system should include incentivising HE providers to offer different forms of qualifications by experimenting with online and shorter “micro credentials”, targeted at those who do not want to take a three-year degree.

Enable academic staff to contribute

The combination of a high workload and endemic casualisation restricts the ability of HE staff to support the students who need it most. Access targets should only be set at levels consistent with improvements in the terms and conditions of staff, so that they can support students entering HE.

Take a holistic approach

Any review of HE will be of limited value unless it fits within broader reform of schools, colleges and skills. In particular, greater incentives for schools to work with HE are needed; at present there is no funding to do so and no sanction not to do so. Additionally, charging tuition fees to those over 24 intending to take Level 3 and 4 courses needs to end, to try and mitigate the continued decline in part-time and mature students entering HE.

Higher education transforms lives, in particular the lives of students who have had to overcome great barriers to get there. We need to give staff and students the funding and support to experience continued, and greater, transformation. 


Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON).   

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.