Tackling disadvantage (I): the role of universities

16 September 2016

In the struggle to improve social mobility in the UK, access to university education is widely regarded both as a key indicator and driver of life chances. And with good reason: although the value of some degrees are increasingly being questioned, the average graduate consistently earns a higher wage than their vocational counterparts.

Efforts to spread this graduate premium more widely have been relatively successful: 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas of England were 81 per cent more likely to apply to university in 2016 than in 2006. However, more privileged young people are still 2.4 times more likely to apply, as rates have gone up across all socio-economic groups.

Intakes are not evenly distributed either. Russell Group universities’ proportion of disadvantaged students is significantly lower than average, and although private school admissions at Oxford are at a 40-year-low, they still make up more than 40 per cent, while accounting for only 7 per cent of the population. Among state school admissions, students from selective schools are highly overrepresented.

Even here the differences do not end. To gain the greatest degree-related advantages, courses have to be completed, and to a high standard. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are 5.3 per cent less likely to obtain their qualification and when they do, less likely to achieve high marks. These effects have been isolated from A-level attainment, strongly indicating that poorer outcomes are unrelated to academic ability.

Earlier this year, then Prime Minister David Cameron famously accused the country’s top universities of entrenching disadvantage in their admissions. By spending more on Widening Participation schemes every year, the sector is trying to counter such indictments. However, as the figures above show, universities will also have to make a concerted effort to support disadvantaged students once they are past the admissions hurdle.

In a report published last week, Reform argued that universities should be strongly encouraged, and eventually mandated, to implement learning analytics –matching student behaviour with their learning outcomes. Given the overwhelmingly positive results for early movers, most universities will do so out of their own volition. As demonstrated in the paper, the potential for targeted and personalised interventions for students who are showing signs of disengagement can significantly improve retention rates. For universities, now more dependent on tuition fees than ever before, this will have great appeal – a pilot of only 11 modules at the Open University increased revenue by about £1.2 million.

Analytics offers insights into where students take wrong turns. Using demographic data, some universities reported applying it to address issues especially encountered by their ethnic minority students. In interviews for the report, Reform encountered ambitions for a future in which students without access to great amounts of so-called ‘social capital’ could instead be given recommendations based on years of learning analytics data. For example, if you are a boy from this school, with these outcomes to date, and you want to become a lawyer, it is a good idea if you do these subjects for A levels, this kind of internship, and learn one of these languages. And once at university, continuously provide guidance on how time is best spent. In this way, ‘middle-class secrets’ would no longer be so secret. Learning analytics cannot provide direct access to internships or intellectually challenging dinner table discussions, but the transparency it would bring is a good place to start.

Leaving aside an obvious long-term implication of social mobility – that some people will have to move down the ladder for others to move up – improving the performance of university students is in everybody’s interest. The evidence of higher incomes and less unemployment makes it a no-brainer to taxpayers and policymakers alike. Universities have vested financial and reputational interests in their students being as successful as possible. Perhaps most importantly, all students want and deserve a chance to live up to their full potential and get the most from an education they have invested so heavily in. Learning analytics is showing early promises to be a step in the right direction.

Emilie Sundorph, Researcher, Reform

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