We don’t talk about widening participation quite as much as we used to. Back at the time of the Dearing Review and New Labour’s commitment to a 50% target and the economic and social benefits of mass higher education, we took it for granted. But not anymore. Access to the UK’s ‘best’ universities was always part of that debate but far from the only aspiration.

Social mobility is now the dominant political term with access to particular universities at the heart of thinking. There is a disjoint between the way access to higher education is discussed in policy-making circles and the way it’s discussed in wider public discourse. And the gap between the perspectives is arguably growing. This matters for the future of WP because it makes public support – and more particularly public funding – for widening access to HE all the more vulnerable. And this detail is the stuff of current debates among policy-makers and has been central to discussions over the past year around a new National Strategy for Access to HE, which we are all currently awaiting from BIS.

Furthermore, the view that mass higher education is an unalloyed good is much less widely held. Both the Observer and the Guardian have joined the more predictable headlines from the Likes of the Daily Mail and Telegraph with editorials bemoaning the ‘massification’ of HE as a ‘failed experiment’. “The agenda has been one of the massification of higher education, predominantly through creating places at newer universities, rather than radically opening up access to top institutions. The flaw at the heart of social mobility by expansion is its assumption that all degrees are equal. The reality is far from the truth…” ran the Observer on 11th August. And again, in the Guardian on 23 September: “Higher education is pumping out people with degrees into a jobs market that doesn’t need them. It’s blighting lives – and undermining the university system itself.”

This shift in opinion has been reinforced with ONS’s recent publication of labour market statistics for recent graduates – which is unfortunate not least because there’s a lot of good evidence about the value of going to university. But there are also serious challenges. The evidence is in the ONS figures – the return on investment from a degree does vary depending on what you studied, and where you studied it.

So in any discussion about the benefits of WP or questions about how or where best to do it, we must first acknowledge the need to rebuild the case for why we do it in the first place. As we can see, this is increasingly contested territory and as spending pressures intensify there are few guarantees that such arguments will be either easy or successful.

Secondly and connected to that, is the need to inject more evidence and thinking into what is becoming an overly narrow debate about social mobility based on access to the ‘most selective’ universities. This is an agenda that has accelerated and strengthened in recent years – especially under the Coalition Government since 2010. Part of that agenda are the commentaries and evidence highlighted by Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission, the Sutton Trust and of course the Russell Group. The result is a growing consensus that social mobility in the UK is in decline and that a key way to break that is to widen access to the ‘best’ universities. Neither of these beliefs are necessarily true – though widely assumed to be. Nor is the connection between the two quite as straightforward as it may seem.

It’s in danger of becoming a political truism even though the evidence is sketchy and contested. Look at the work of John Goldthorpe in particular (which we’ve mentioned before – here). The Sutton Trust are an increasingly significant voice and their aim of widening access to more socially exclusive leading universities is laudable. They work with a list of the ‘top 30’ universities – although it’s not easy to discover how they choose them. Some UCAS analysis divides the sector into ‘high tariff’, ‘medium tariff’ and ‘low tariff’ groups by using applicants’ attainment across the full suite of qualifications – a slightly less reductive view of high grades than the ‘ABB+’ policy currently influencing recruitment to English HE providers. Typically this top 30 of ‘highly selective’ universities is equated to membership of the Russell Group (plus a handful of others).

But neither the Sutton Trust nor the Russell Group provide an adequate proxy for the ‘best’ or even the ‘most selective’. Many leading courses and sectors are missing – the creative industries are just one example. Students wishing to study drama, art or music have many other choices to follow – several even have a ‘Royal’ prefix. Of course it’s equally true of courses from agriculture to aerospace as well as in nursing, teaching and social work.

And there are other ways of analysing selectivity that relate to more than just prior attainment. Take, for example, the following list of the ‘most popular’ English HEIs based on the ratio of UCAS applications versus acceptances to degree-level courses in 2012 – this is another way of showing those that have the biggest ‘selection’ process. Looked at this way, the list of institutions enjoying the highest demand doesn’t look precisely like the lists we normally see in debates about selectivity.

The ‘top 30’ by this definition is very interesting. Not unexpectedly, there are several highly ranked Russell group universities in the list including LSE in 5th with 11.5 applications per place, Liverpool in joint 8th with 8 applications per place, King’s College London, Leeds, UCL and Bristol tied in 11th place and Southampton in 16th, all with ratios of 7.6 applications per place or above. Birmingham (7.5), Warwick (7.4) and Nottingham (7.3) aren’t very far behind.


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WP blog Nov 2012 - diagram

But there are also some surprises. Following the drama and art examples we see the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama at the top with a whopping 22.4 applications per degree place and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts second with 19.3. Third is the Brighton and Sussex Medical School with 17.8 applications per place. Also popping up elsewhere in the top 30 are Keele (9), Greenwich (8, tied with Liverpool) and Oxford Brookes (7.9). Also Chester and Middlesex (7.1), Bath Spa (6.9) and the University of the Arts London (6.9). And it’s worth noting that this list even excludes private providers of HE, a number of which accept students through UCAS and would be up around the top of the charts if they’d been included.

Of course it shouldn’t be a shock. We should expect applicants to show us which are the ‘best’ universities especially after we have flooded them with data about performance in a wide range of areas. That is after all, how the recent reforms are meant to reinforce the HE ‘market’. The alternative and contradictory view is that we should tell all applicants which are the best universities – regardless of what they do or how good they are in various subjects. We can’t have it both ways. Are all of these applicants suffering what Michael Gove and Diane Abbott describe as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’? I don’t think so.

So if we want to defend widening participation budgets then we must defend the idea and purpose of mass higher education. We must also make politicians, the media and the public realise that social mobility is much more complex than they believe and that their definition of the ‘top universities’ should be rather broader. Achieving both of these things will be a tall order. But it’s no more difficult than the challenge undertaken every day by those institutions that widen participation, increasing achievement and social mobility for the least well off in our society.


Andy Westwood, CEO and Nick Johnstone, Senior Policy Advisor