Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

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Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.

Universities and freedom of information

The Independent Commission charged with reviewing Freedom of Information legislation has now issued its report. Its chief conclusion is that “the Act is generally working well, and that it has been one of a number of measures that havehelped to change the culture of the public sector”. It recommends a number of changes, some of them extending the scope of the law, and some intended to clarify its operation. Nothing, at least on a first read, seems to involve major change.

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Nicola Dandridge  of UUK

Well, you might say, if nothing’s changing why write about it? The short answer is that a lot of powerful individuals and bodies hoped that the Act would be changed significantly, among them most of Britain’s universities. The Commission said that 74 public bodies had submitted evidence to it, most of them complaining that the Act was burdensome and asking for restrictions. University heads have been lobbying governments in England and Scotland for some time about the law, and in England at least government was willing to consider change.

This case was put directly to the Commission by Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, who attended to present evidence in person. According to Dandridge, the higher education sector supported the principles behind the Act, but was suffering from a huge rise in the costs of compliance, allied to the growing competition between public universities subject to the legislation and private providers who are not. And I really encourage you to read the transcript of the subsequent discussion.

The veteran Labour MP Jack Straw, former cabinet minister and onetime student leader, gave her a particularly torrid time, exposing a number of holes – or less charitably, errors – in her knowledge. Equally damaging, when pressed for an example of the harm done by answering FoI requests, Dandridge chose the topic of ‘non-academic salaries at senior level’. She didn’t know the size of private higher education provision (her guess of 10-15% of students is way off the mark). She was unable to understand a Liberal Democrat peer who suggested that being subject to FoI could be seen as an advantage, when compared to the less transparent private universities.

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Little wonder that the Commission concluded that the evidence provided by Universities UK (and the Russell Group) was ‘unpersuasive’, finding that ‘it continues to be appropriate and important for universitiesto remain subject to the Act’. But this may not be the end of the matter.

The Government has the right to reject part or all of the advice it receives from the Commission in respect of the English legislation, and the Vice Chancellors’ lobby will continue. Scottish the university heads are lobbying  separatelyfor exemption from the FoI Scotland Act, on the grounds that it diverts resources towards answering questions and away from teaching and research. This is as spurious an argument as those advanced to the Commission, and again it does the sector’s reputation no good.

It should be clear by now that I support the FoI legislation, and argued for such a law back in the 1980s. I see the 2000 Act as one of a number of significant achievements of the much-maligned New Labour government (and no, I am not usually a Labour Party supporter). I also think that universities should be comfortable with the idea that they are public institutions with public obligations, even if some of their funding comes from private sources.

Of course the Act does cause some problems. I’ve encountered companies trying to access interview data that relate to the health impact of their products, but we saw them off. Many requests are dealt with simply by pointing people to the relevant web link, others contravene data privacy. On the other hand, it is not hard to come up with plenty of cases where the Act has worked in the public interest, from exposing off-payroll payments for senior staff to universities reliance on corporate sponsors to explanations of admissions decisions. The legislation has justified itself, and it’s time for university heads to get over it.