Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

dingSome time ago I bookmarked a paper by Ruichang Ding, a researcher from Beijing Normal University. Applying advanced statistical methods to data from the OECD’s survey of adult skills, Ding tried to find out how far people’s success in education reflected the attainment levels of their parents.

Before summarising Ding’s findings, I want to make a point about method. In order to measure educational level, Ding had to resort to formal qualifications; while we have additional data for those who took part in the survey, there is no alternative when it comes to the parents. And while qualifications systems vary widely, the OECD surveyed adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries. In order to compare the results across countries, then, we have to use a standardised way of comparing qualifications, and Ding – reasonably enough – adopted the OECD’s own standard classification.

All that said, Ding’s findings are easy to summarise. First, as expected, he found that in all countries, today’s adults have better average qualifications than their parents. However, this gap varies considerably between different countries: the educational gap between generations is very low in Sweden and Finland, and very high in Spain and the Czech Republic, with England/Northern Ireland (Wales and Scotland chose not to join the survey) coming in above the average.

Second, he shows that in each case, the parents’ qualification levels are on average closely related to those of today’s adults. Once more, though, there are differences between nations. The relationship is closest in Slovakia and the USA, and weakest in Finland; the UK is among a group of countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Poland) that are clustered above average. Ding concludes from this that ‘intergenerational educational mobility in Finland would be relatively larger’, and correspondingly that it is rather low in the USA.

Third, and from my standpoint most interestingly, income inequality seems to be an important factor in explaining these patterns. Ding tests for other factors including poverty levels, levels of public spending on education, and average levels of wealth, and found no evidence of any correlation with intergenerational educational transmission. In the case of income inequality, Ding finds a very clear correlation: ‘countries with the high level of inequality had some of the lowest mobility’. Here, the UK and USA are marked by very high levels of income inequality and low levels of educational mobility.

I think this is an important paper which contributes to our understanding of social mobility and its constraints. The main findings support the argument of English researcher Andy Green, who with his colleagues has used different techniques to analyse the OECD survey data, coming to similar conclusions about educational inequalities. If we are to tackle these blockages to social mobility, then these findings suggest to me that investing in family learning for the least advantaged really should be a much higher priority than it is at present.

Few winners, plenty of losers: policy failure in lifelong learning

The Government has finally published the results of its 2010 National Adult Learning Survey. Why it was not published last year is itself a story, but the more important issue is that the survey shows a huge decline in participation in adult learning. The headline is that overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005. Non-formal learning, or courses not leading to a qualification, saw a collapse of 17%; and informal (self-directed) learning saw a drop of 13%. 

As ever, deep inequalities lurk behind the headlines. The age gradient has risen, with much sharper declines in participation among older adults. The gap between 20-29 year-olds and people in their sixties has risen, as has the gap between the 20-29-year-olds and people aged over 70. In a system which was already geared towards youth, older adults have been further marginalised.

The education gradient has also become steeper. Participation fell by 7% among people with higher education qualifications; it fell by 11% among those with Level 2 qualifications, by 14% among those with Level 1 qualifications, and a whoppping 19% by those with no qualifications. This is quite remarkable, given that after the Leitch Review of 2006, Government policy under Labour and the Coalition was allegedly geared towards getting the least qualified to improve their skills and qualifications.

The social mobility gradient has become sharper as well. The drop in participation was 7% among those with at least one parent holding a university degree, and 12% for people whose parents had left education by the age of 16. Taken together with current changes in the taxation and benefits systems, this contradicts the claim that social mobility can be – as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg put it in 2011 – the Coalition’s ‘over-riding social policy objective’.

How can we explain this collapse in lifelong learning? The report suggests that the 2005 figures were inflated by a temporary surge in introductory computer training; this is possible but unlikely, as the result of introductory computer training is generally an increased need for less basic training. The report also claims that ‘employers are training fewer employees’ because of the recession. This sounds plausible until you realise that there is absolutely no evidence for this claim. On the contrary – Alan Felstead and Francis Green have shown that training activity has continued much as usual.

Finally, the report briefly alludes to policy changes, which brought about a critical breakdown in public sector provision. Essentially, Government decided to discourage short courses and courses not leading to qualifications, and prioritise courses leading to Level 2 qualifications. These are the results of policies adopted in 2007, on Labour’s watch (hang your heads in shame, John Denham and Bill Rammell). The Coalition has continued them in England, and now the SNP is taking Scotland down the same path.

The consequences do not need labouring. First, we are heading straight for greater educational and social inequality; second, social mobility will decline as a direct result; and third, any claims about ‘active aging’ must be measured against the negative effects of reduced opportunities for third age learning.

The NALS report is at:

Felstead and his colleagues’ reports on training in the recession are at:

Should the Scottish Government legislate on university access?

In leap years, the last day of February has always attracted superstitions. Traditionally, in Scotland it was believed a day of bad luck. Some people in Scotland’s universities clearly felt particularly hard done by when Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, announced that his plans for post-16 reform included a stronger legislative base for promoting wider access. He also made a number of other proposals, all of them worth discussing, and some far-reaching. But the idea of legislating for wider access is a new one in these islands, and that is my focus here. 

Universities Scotland replied that it saw no ‘pressing need for new legislation on widening access’, and suggested that any new law might lead to young people entering university courses for which they were poorly prepared. The University of St Andrew’s was, predictably, more assertive, describing access as ‘not an area for legislation, but for specific projects and partnerships’, adding for good measure that ‘statutory force may lead to bad practice’. This is classic avoidance-speak, as familiar to us as the clouds in the sky, and about as fluffy. Anyone who has watched university administrators collating data to demonstrate compliance with targets will understand why any new law needs to be drafted with a beady eye on possible unintended consequences. If we want to avoid state regulation of the sector, we need to engage with Scotland’s serious problem of social inequality as it affects our institutions.

First, let’s look quickly at some of the data. We can start with the proportion of young entrants from Scotland who come from families with managerial and professional backgrounds. The figures will surprise anyone who has bought into the myths: 73% of new Scottish undergraduates came from socio-economic classes 1, 2 and 3, compared with 68% from Wales and London, 67% from Yorkshire, and 64% from Northern Ireland; the South-east of England was ahead of Scotland, at 76%. In other words, the affluent middle class account for a larger share of university entrants in Scotland than any other UK nation, making us closer to the South-east of England than to Yorkshire, the Midlands or northern England.

Next up is the proportion of young people entering undergraduate degrees who do not come from state schools or colleges. Over 12% of new entrants from Scotland are privately indicated, compared with 8% from Yorkshire, 5% from Wales and 1% from Northern Ireland. This indicator suggests that Scotland’s university entrants are more likely to be privately educated school-leavers than in the other UK nations; of the English regions, only the South-west, London (with its many minority faith schools) and the South-east come ahead of Scotland.

These data, published annually by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, are significant. Universities Scotland challenges the use of the multiple deprivation index to measure inequality, and HESA publishes data on neighbourhood disadvantage for Northern Ireland, England and Wales only. But both charts, showing university degree entrants by socio-economic classification, and by type of school, suggest a sector that might be seen by UK standards as relatively closed and elitist.

Of course, this is not the full picture. Many school-leavers in Scotland (and a fair few adults) enter full-time higher education in a college, taking one- and two-year Higher National Certificates and Diplomas. So the system as a whole is more open and inclusive than appears when looking solely at the university sector. And then there are all those adult returners and part-time students.

But here’s the rub: this is precisely what Mike Russell and the Scottish Government are trying to get at. If you take an HND, after two years of full-time study, then a lot of people – Mike Russell included – think you should be able to go on to a university and complete an undergraduate degree without having to go back to the first year. After all, every single HEI in Scotland has fully signed up to the national credit and qualifications framework. But in practice, students who ‘articulate’ from an HNC or HND into the second or third year of a degree tend to find themselves almost entirely in the so-called ‘new universities’ or ‘post-92’ institutions. In this, the university sector is at least consistent, as most students from disadvantaged backgrounds and state schools are similarly found in the post-92s.

And what about adult returners? Within the UK, Scotland’s universities are marked by their low proportion of part-time students (only Wales has a lower proportion of part-time students). Again, part-time HE students tend to gather in the colleges, as do other students from non-traditional backgrounds. The cruel fact is that under the Government’s policy of consolidation, overall funded student numbers are restricted; if a university can fill its places with full-time students, there is no incentive to take part-time ones. So although some institutions, mostly post-92, do attract part-time adult students, the university sector as a whole does not seem well-placed to support lifelong learning alongside working life.

Faced with such stark inequalities, the Government’s position looks quite cautious. The possibility of legislation was floated in the Government’s green paper on post-16 education, and the Minister’s proposals are quite modest. What he said was that the consultation seemed to show ‘clear support for legislation to support the current activity on access agreements that is being led by the Scottish funding council, and that is the route that I will pursue’. In other words, he is proposing to strengthen the current direction of travel, and give it some sort of legal basis, which is yet to be determined – after, no doubt, the usual heavy lobbying. Hardly the stuff to give even the most nervous registrar nightmares.

Instinctively, I am not an automatic supporter of state regulation of universities. But it seems to me that in many ways, our universities are slithering away from their social contract with the wider community. In Scotland, the Government has chosen to protect university budgets, at least for the time being, but other sectors have been raided in order to fund this protection; young people at risk of unemployment face uncertainty over the availability of skills training in colleges, and pre-school education has fallen well behind standards elsewhere in the UK. And there are anxieties and shortages aplenty in the schools sector.

Which brings us to the wider problem of educational inequality across Scotland’s education system. In its response to the consultation on post-16 education and training, Universities Scotland made a very good point about the roots of inequality in higher education. Put simply, universities are simply dealing with what the schools send; while over one in every two pupils from the most advantaged ten per cent of neighbourhoods in Scotland leaves with five Higher Grades or equivalent, only one in fourteen from the most deprived ten per cent crosses this hurdle. Undergraduate participation rates are higher among qualified entrants from the more deprived neighbourhoods than in more affluent areas. This is a very important finding, and Universities Scotland tactfully suggests that this should give the Minister something more pressing to worry about than the universities.

Yet even if Mike Russell dealt with inequality in schools tomorrow, the universities would still be hanging from a hook, in spite of all Universities Scotland’s wriggling. Put simply, a weak schools system requires a strong lifelong learning system, with abundant opportunities for people to return later in life, ideally without leaving their jobs. In so far as we have such a system, it is based in the college sector, and movement from college into university is highly problematic. Bluntly, it is confined to those universities that are keenest to recruit, and even there it is contingent on the number of places left over once conventionally-qualified first year entrants have been placed.

Finally, could legislation work? In fact, there is some relevant experience elsewhere, in one of the small open Nordic nations. Sweden has legislated on university access, with particular respect to mature students: all over-25s meet the eligibility requirement provided they have basic Swedish and English, plus at least four years’ work experience, and are only rejected where they do not meet the specific demands of specialist courses such as chemistry or maths. Studies by Agnieszka Bron, Martin Hällsten and the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education suggest that Swedish universities contribute significantly to lifelong learning and equity. I have yet to see convincing, or even unconvincing evidence that the quality of teaching or research has suffered as a result. So the Government does not have to look far to find signs that legislation might work; if Scotland’s universities have their wits about them, they will make sure that it is not needed.

University applications in 2012: continuity rather than change?

Well, now we know. Tuition fees affect people’s decisions on whether they want to attend university. We can now start examing the detailed figures for all those who applied through the central admissions scheme, in the hope of entering university this autumn. And because of the rapid rise in tuition fees in England this year, public interest has been intense. In fact, I am amazed that the UCAS[1] website didn’t crash. Now that we finally have them, what do the figures tell us?

 The main message is that not that much has changed. This isn’t the headline news – the BBC led its report with the statement that ‘university applications are down 9%’. And so they are, though in Scotland the fall was only 1.5%. This isn’t great for the universities, but to understand what is happening we need to look, not at the headline, but at underlying trends in participation. A much better way of doing this is to measure the numbers of applicants against the number of people in the relevant age group. And this leads us to a rather different conclusion.

 The 2012 applications figures show that young people are still flocking to higher education. In England, the proportion of 18-year-olds who applied through UCAS fell by around 1%. At 34%, it is now the same as it was in 2010, itself a bumper year, thanks to a combination of the recession and a rush to beat the introduction of fees. And it is still higher than Scotland, where some 31% of young people applied, and Wales, where the figure falls to around 29%.

 Once you allow for the declining numbers of school-leavers in our ageing populations in all three British nations, then, around one third of 17-18 year olds apply for a university place through UCAS. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no obvious sign that the new fee regime has altered this pattern.

 Nor has it had much discernable effect on deterring the least privileged. UCAS has provided figures for application rates among young people living in the one-fifth of areas with the lowest participation rates in higher education. The application rate from this group has risen in Wales and Northern Ireland. In England and Scotland, it has fallen. In all cases, the changes are so slight that they may not tell us much. And they certainly do not represent a mass retreat from the (often unnoticed) pattern of steady growth in demand from this socio-economic group since around 2000.

 As we might expect, the number of Scottish applicants to universities in England and Wales has fallen. There has been a sharp rise in applications to Glasgow University, which has posted relatively low fee levels for non-Scottish UK students; but there were larger rises at Heriot-Watt and St Andrews. Within Scotland, the largest rise in applications was for the University of the Highlands and Islands, admittedly from a relatively low baseline. Harder to explain is the 12% decline in applications to Strathclyde. But some movement always takes place on a year-by-year basis, so I don’t read too much into this.

 There is also some turbulence in people’s subject choices, though it is of course not clear whether this is a consequence of fees. Social science, communications and creative arts are all down, as many of us might have expected; so are applications for languages, technologies and architectual studies, all of which I thought would benefit as students became more canny about their future careers. But none of these are momentous collapses or volcanic eruptions.

 On the other hand, we do see a clear decline in demand from mature students. Compared with 2011, the number of applicants aged 25-9 has fallen by almost 12%, while the numbers of 30-9s and over-40s fell by 10%. Of course, the UCAS figures only relate to applicants for full-time study; we will not know until later this year – if then – what has happened to demand for part-time places.

 There is also a fall in application rates among the 21-4 age group. For England and Wales, the fall is clear, and it continues what we can now see as a downward trend that was already apparent in 2011. In Scotland, by contrast, the application rate among these ‘young mature students’ rose in both years. But the fall should not be overstated: in all of the home nations, the demand for places remains higher among 21-4 year-olds than it was in 2009.

 A quick look at gender tells us that women continue to outnumber men among university applicants. If anything, the gap increased slightly, as in Wales and Scotland the number of male applicants fell while the number of females grew. In England, the application rate fell for both genders, but the fall was greater for men. So the gender gap in British higher education looks set to increase, but this is broadly in line with existing trends.

 Finally, UCAS provides an analysis of demand from overseas applicants. The number of applicants from the rest of the European Union has fallen by some 10%, except in Scotland where it has risen by 6% (and as the number of places is capped, this may lead to pressure for places from home candidates). Irish applicants have plummeted by almost 20%, but the number of non-EU overseas applicants has risen significantly, confounding the expectations of those who predicted that new visa rules would reduce demand from outside the EU.

 Where does this leave us? The first conclusion is that the impact of higher fees appears to have significantly reduced demand from mature students. Part-time students do not apply through UCAS, and they already pay fees in all the UK systems, so can not yet see whether there are similar patterns of reduced demand. But the early evidence suggests that a high fee system is unlikely to favour lifelong learning. Instead, a high fee system will focus increasingly on the recruitment and teaching of school-leavers.

 For the second conclusion is that, so far, there is little evidence in the UCAS figures of a serious decline in demand among young applicants. Be that as it may, the most surprising thing for me is just how little has changed in patterns of demand among the young. Despite my concerns over the system’s turn away from lifelong learning, I am heartened to see the consolidation of growing participation among young disasvantaged people – and starting to think there is something to be discussed over the gender gap.

 There’s still some way to go before we can be clear about what is happening to university participation in Britain. Many mature students apply direct to their local HEI, rather than through UCAS. Part-time applicants don’t use UCAS at all. And 2012 may be a blip for al sorts of reasons; a longer view may show us that participation did indeed fall as dramatically as the fees critics expected, or that demand was as resilient as the government hoped.

 Above all, these data don’t tell us whether fees are a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, my own view is that fees are defensible in principle. There is a strong case for arguing that a universal public service should be free at the point of use, particularly when that service is overwhelmingly a public good. The debate, for me, is then about the way in which the higher education system functions; public funding should promote the public good and secure wider access, but the system remains highly selective in who it takes and the benefits that they gain. But that is another matter.

 Overall, then, it looks at first as though the UK’s higher education systems will face business more or less as usual. In some respects, this is not a surprise. Anyone who teaches new undergraduates knows that most young students are not focusing single-mindedly on their future career. And of course, things might have looked very different if the labour market for 17-18 year olds looked a lot brighter than it does. I have written elsewhere about the role of higher and further education in providing a shelter from the recession for those might otherwise enter the labour market. Although fees may be damaging mature participation, there is as yet little evidence that they are reducing demand among young applicants.

Paper on higher education and the recession available at:

[1] Universities Council for Admissions Services