We need a higher education system that is open to all – regardless of where they are born, who their parents are and how wealthy they are. This means increasing social mobility through early intervention.
At present, those that access university are, by and large, those that have had the opportunities in life. Official figures show that teenagers from the poorest families are half as likely to enter higher education as those who are more affluent. We still live in a country where the single biggest factor in determining your educational attainment is your mother’s educational attainment.
Your life chances are determined at a young age. 80% of all the brain cells a person will ever have are manufactured before the age of two, with the first three years of life being a critical period for brain growth. It has been shown that a child’s upbringing in these early years has a significant impact on its capabilities. Research by Save the Children found that nearly 80% of the difference in GCSE results between rich and poor children had been determined by the age of seven. In addition, universities have been found to have a middle class bias when it comes to applications. As it stands, your chances of going to university are decided long before you are old enough to even consider going to university. Introducing free higher education would not change any of this.
If we are really serious about equality of opportunity when it comes to higher education, the answer is not free tuition at the age of 18 but rather intervention before the age of three. The reality is that money will be tighter than tight in the next parliament, and politics is often about priorities. The priority has to be breaking the cycle of deprivation that prevents working class people accessing higher education.
I’m proud of Labour’s investment in Sure Start, which aimed to do just that. We also need solutions for the most hard-to-reach families, who were never going to walk through the door of a Sure Start centre. By investing in early years, preventing problems before they have the chance to manifest themselves and giving children the opportunity to succeed, the government can create a fairer society and save money down the line.
By all means, let’s look at how we change our higher education system to make it fairer. This government’s trebling of tuition fees, cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance and axing of ‘Aimhigher’ have been unhelpful to say the least. For those from poorer households who do make it to university, we of course need much better support and bursaries to ensure they are able to afford the materials they need to study and complete their courses.
But it is wrong to think that fees are the main barrier to those with less privilege going to university. In fact, the evidence shows that it’s quite the opposite, with the introduction of fees having allowed for the widening of access to higher education under Labour.
Give me a rally for early intervention and I’ll be there, but I won’t be joining the march for free education on 19 November.