Passing educational inequalities across the generations?

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Tuesday’s Guardian reported some startling statistics that cast doubt on the equality of admissions policies in some of Britain’s top universities. Out of a total of 2,653 home student undergraduate offers for study made in 2009 by Oxford University, just one was to a student of Black Caribbean origin, representing a success rate of 2.9%; the success rate for White students on the other hand stood at 27.6% [1, 2]. As the Guardian numbers suggest, this is not simply a reflection of achievement – Black students who achieved three As at A-level were actually more likely to apply to some of the most prestigious universities than White students who did so [2]. On the other side of the coin, the University of East London had half as many students who were black as the whole of the Russell Group of Universities – a group of 20 prestigious universities. Figures from the Times show that the universities who achieve success in recruiting ethnic minority students are new universities mainly concentrated in London and outer boroughs: Westminster, Kingston, Middlesex and Hertfordshire being the top four [3]. However, these are also universities that have made serious commitments to recruiting students from non-traditional backgrounds as set out in their outlook and policies, and there is a real need for these institutions to share best practice and expertise with those universities who struggle to replicate their successes. Explanations from universities with few students from ethnic minorities have suggested that the choice of course may be an explanatory factor; the question for these institutions is also what else can be learnt from universities that successfully represent the ethnic diversity of young people.

While the primary remit of ILC-UK is to consider the effects of population change and an ageing society, this story is of concern as it suggests that there is still work to be done in creating a fully accessible higher education system. Social inequalities occurring in childhood and young adulthood can cascade and become amplified throughout the lifecourse, which can lead to serious inequalities in financial, health and wellbeing, and longevity domains in later life. If we examine differences among older people by ethnicity, the current population of non-white older people as a whole shows markedly poorer outcomes compared to white older people. Using data from the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing (ELSA), we can see that non-white older people were much more likely to report financial difficulties compared to their white peers (18% versus 3%) and were almost three times as likely to report poor health (27% versus 9%)*. However, older non-white people were also more likely to have no qualifications compared to their white counterparts (66% compared to 55%)**.

 The links between education and labour market success are transparent – highly educated people often earn more in the workplace which often translates into better outcomes across a range of domains. Those who attend the most prestigious universities are also more likely to earn more [3]. Given that future outcomes are hinged to a large extent on educational success, it is vital that we ensure a meritocratic higher education system, and one that does not build on earlier inequalities. The news on admissions reveals that the current admissions system is failing to recruit a representative student body at some of the top institutions. The question for politicians is whether or not allowing tuition fees to increase to £9,000 for the majority of students will produce a more meritocratic system that ensures that inequalities do not cascade further down the lifecourse.

 *Further breakdown of non-white population not possible due to small sample size. Based on bivariate analysis using 2008 data and cross-sectional weight.

 ** Based on bivariate analysis using 2006 data and cross-sectional weight.

Dylan Kneale

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