Mandelson on higher education

It’s summer, and therefore time for the annual row over higher education funding. This year into the ring steps the peer of the realm and cabinet minister formerly known as Peter Mandelson, who wishes to see social mobility and academic excellence supported.

In a speech delivered at Birkbeck, University of London (the institution formerly known as Birkbeck College, University of London), Lord Mandelson discussed the forthcoming government review of university tuition fees. Any higher charges to students must take into account the needs of poorer families, says the minister. But universities, and especially those in the elite Russell Group, are opposed to statutory caps on fees, and would like to see a higher education system in the UK similar to that which exists in the United States.

“Bluntly put: excellence is not cheap,” Lord Mandelson said. “There must always be a link between what an institution charges and its performance in widening access and supporting those without the ability to pay.”

This is anathema to the Russell Group, which claims that finance is not a significant factor in determining whether a young person goes to university.

“[T]he evidence shows that if a working-class child manages to overcome all the barriers they face and achieve three good A-levels, they’re just as likely as their middle-class peer to go to university.”

Thus said Russell Group director general Wendy Piatt, citing figures showing that there has been a “massive increase” in applications to English universities this year, despite the introduction of variable fees.

It is hardly surprising that in the midst of an economic recession there has been an increase in university applications. After all, going to college beats watching daytime television while claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and getting under the parents’ feet. Piatt’s claims also ignore the drop out rate due to financial hardship, and the fact that the student demographic in top universities is skewed towards the upper middle classes. Working class students are more often to be found in provincial colleges close to the family home, and which charge lower fees.

Peter Mandelson is right. Universities should engage with applicants at a much earlier stage in the process, and increase their outreach activities in schools. It’s also encouraging to see the minister addressing the issue of mature students, and the need to “widen participation” in higher education. However, his arguments would be more convincing had the government not decided last year to slash funding for lifelong learning programmes.