‘There were shades of the Laura Spence affair in David Cameron’s recent swipes about diversity at the University of Oxford. Back then, Gordon Brown’s intervention in the case of a state school pupil with 5 As rejected by Oxford ushered in a golden era of government policy to widen participation in higher education. No such luck this time. Government policy has started to reverse access to parts of the sector – almost certainly by mistake.
The prime minister’s comments are a colourful take on parts of Jo Johnson’s recent green paper. Johnson wants 20% more black and minority ethnic (BME) students at universities by 2020, and Cameron wants that too. But not all of his ministers are pulling their weight. And although the government’s heart is in the right place, its head is not.
Let’s state the obvious. Universities are more open and diverse than they used to be, thanks to government policy and light-touch regulation. When the tuition fee cap rose to £9,000, we were instructed to spend some of the money on widening participation. This gave us the autonomy and funding – as well as a clear target – to do better.
As of 2015-16, black and minority ethnic students make up nearly a third of my university’s undergraduate cohort. Many other institutions have made similar progress. We plan to go further. In that sense, I don’t see huge challenges in increased targets.
But you can’t get to university before you’ve been to school. So while the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is making the right noises about tertiary education, the Department for Education’s (DfE) English Baccalaureate is cutting access at secondary level to one of the UK’s big education success stories.
As most people know by now, the EBacc doesn’t include creative subjects – which is a problem if you want to study those subjects at tertiary level. Most universities expect prospective students to have school qualifications in relevant subject areas. Creative specialists like us are no different.’ - Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, in the Guardian