After ‘posh and white’: the 50-year slog towards achieving educational equality

Elizabeth Houghton is a PhD student at Lancaster University.

Her research aims to address a gap in the literature on ‘marketised’ higher education  by examining students’ experiences of universities operating under neoliberal policies.

Elizabeth Houghton

Her piece ‘After “posh and white”: the 50-year slog towards achieving educational equality’ finished in the top 10 of the ESRC’s writing competition, The World in 2065– in collaboration with academic publishers, SAGE.  You can read it below:

On a summer’s day in 2015, in a small lecture theatre in London, a primary school student turned to his audience and said: “When we watch the news we’ve seen how university fees have risen so people from state schools feel like they can’t afford to go. All we see in the media is poshwhite kids going to university.”

His audience were budding academics, charity workers and educational professionals trying to find out how to break the link between high-earning households and access into the UK’s top universities.

That morning in the same theatre, the Director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), Professor Les Ebdon, had challenged top universities to use their research expertise to overcome the “tough challenges in improving access”.

“Highly selective universities are full of highly intelligent people who excel at solving problems,” he said. “If they truly harness their wealth of research expertise, it could bring a step change in progress.”

And change was needed. A year earlier Offa had found that only 2.9 per cent of teenagers from the poorest 40 per cent of households went on to study at the UK’s top 24 universities, an increase of only 0.5 per cent from 1998. Though more people than ever were going to university, where they were going was still very much a matter of concern.

Half a century later it is worth contemplating how that’s changed. Dr Elizabeth Houghton, who in 2015 was doing her PhD research on how students’ economic and social backgrounds affected their experiences of university, explains how it’s taken all of the following 50 years to reach a point where a student’s past no longer has such an influence on their future.

“With an issue like inequality there is never going to be a single piece of research that will change everything,” Houghton explained. “It’s a slow slog. It takes decades of work by academics, policymakers, campaigners and teachers to bring about change. But slowly, steadily, things began to get better.”

She believes a key turning point came in 2025, when the new government extended compulsory education to 21 – requiring all young people to be studying or training at the equivalent level of a higher education undergraduate degree.

There has been plenty of debate since about the motivations behind this legislation. The official reason was to bolster the UK’s ‘economic competitiveness’. There was also a recognition of so-called ’credentialism‘, to borrow the phrase of Basic Income campaigner Professor Guy Standing: as the number of graduates increased, more and more qualifications were needed to get a job, and by the early 2020s the lack of a university degree was effectively a life sentence to unemployment or underemployment.

Indeed, some at the time grumbled that extending education was a convenient way of massaging the employment figures, seemingly lifting one million young people out of unemployment.

Others felt extended education was a natural consequence of increasing life expectancies. As the shadow universities minister observed at the time: “If young people are going to be working till their seventies, even leaving university at 21 means almost 50 years of work. We might as well give them the chance to learn something they’ll enjoy doing for the next half a century.”

Arguably this justification proved apt: creative and social enterprises boomed, as young people had more time to think them up and less worries about getting a job to pay back their student loans.

As Houghton explains: “No one was really thinking about extending education 50 years ago, not least because once it was made compulsory there was no way of continuing to charge student fees. The debts that already existed had to be written off – which was handy as it was predicted it would cost the Treasury £8 billion a year by 2040. Wiping it out actually helped the economy, as graduates suddenly had more cash to spend.”

Compulsory undergraduate level education also meant better monitoring of where students were studying. Drawing on the Obama Administration’s 2015 changes to the Fair Housing Act in the US, the Fair Access Act of 2030 required all universities to scrutinise their student population for economic bias and provide public reports, or risk losing funding.

“There were some complaints at the time about an intrusive state,” Houghton explains. “But I think generally the sense was that we couldn’t have another 50 years of poor kids – with the racial bias that comes with that – being excluded from top universities and therefore top professions. The fact that it was university research that largely proved this made it hard for institutions to argue against.”

Houghton concludes: “Drip-by-drip, over 50 years, politics and academia stopped looking like it was just posh and white, and the more kids who saw that, the more thought ‘that could be me’. Research along with this exposure helped to change things.”

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