Life? Don’t Talk to Me About Life!

WardropADr Alex Wardrop, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Fair Access to Higher Education, reflects on loans, life, and the limits of fair access.

The Sutton Trust recently published a report by John Thompson outlining the impact of the Government’s proposed changes to the student loan repayment structure and removal of maintenance grants to economically disadvantaged students.

This report comes at the tail end of a summer reflection; the Institute for Fiscal Studies argued that the budget will disproportionately affect low-income students; the Government’s Green Paper outlined the “unfinished business” of sustainable HE funding through yet more structural changes; the Independent Commission On Fees gave their final report on the impact of the 2012-13 fee and funding changes.

Unpicking the summer budget further, Thompson outlines how it’s not just the move from grants to loans which will negatively affect low-income students, but the proposed “freezing” of the threshold for loan repayments. If the proposed changes go ahead, Thompson argues, the average cost of higher education will be significantly more for students from low-income backgrounds and for women (who still earn less than men over the course of their careers).

The assumptions underlying the Government’s proposals are that if you go to university you will get a better (paying) job and that it is a “basic unfairness” to get taxpayers to “fund the grants of people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.” This assumption, however, makes little room for the fact that the HE sector is highly stratified and no room for the fact that the careers in which you are likely to earn the most remain for a small few.

What Thompson’s report gives to the sector is another way of framing some of the tensions and assumptions at the heart of English HE.

Social mobility and widening participation were at the heart of the policy and funding changes made in response to the Browne review in 2010. Jo Johnson’s July speech may shift the heart of the system a little, but he keeps widening participation central to the rhetoric of HE policy. Indeed, this policy focus has seen an increase in participation, with students from underrepresented backgrounds applying, enrolling, studying, and graduating from universities in numbers that could not have been imagined a decade ago.

This does not mean, however, that we are done with fair access. Participation rates vary drastically across the sector; attainment gaps persist, and even taking into account prior attainment, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have worse degree outcomes than more privileged students. As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report puts it, a “glass floor” exists that means low-income and other marginalised people are excluded from social, education, and economic opportunities very early on in life.

Thompson’s research adds to this picture by making it clear that for fair access policy and practice to make the sustained significant transformations necessary to make this country fairer for all, it needs to re-position itself.

Fair Access needs to move from the heart of the system to become the system itself.

There is now a broad consensus within the community of widening participation policy makers, practitioners, and researchers that for fair access work to be effective it has to nurture a sense of belonging between students and institutions. In the words of Engstrom and Tinto, “access without support is not opportunity.” This holistic approach becomes translated into policy as the concern for the “whole student lifecycle.” For fair access to be fair it must encompass pre-application, enrolment, study at university, and support to progress into employment or further study.

However, the ‘wholeness’ of this student lifecycle remains somewhat circumscribed. Student life is all too often assumed to be the life of a young, full-time, student, with little or no additional needs or (perceived) burdens. The Independent Commission on Fees final report, for example, reiterates concerns voiced by the sector over a number of years, that the structural changes in 2012-13 have led to a “significant and sustained fall in part time students and mature students.” Life in HE, it seems, remains limited for those with lives that don’t fit easily into boxes, or timetables.

Reading Unfair Deal, what struck me was how it subtly but urgently reminds us that HE has an impact – positive and negative – on students’ lives that reaches far beyond graduation. If effective widening participation involves interventions with children to support successful pathways to HE, this long view works the other way too.

We need to limit our assumptions about the lives of students and make sure that our work (whether that is funding changes, policy developments, teaching, or research) enables a more equitable life for longer.

Thompson states in the report that a vital move on the part of the Government needs to be the restoration of trust between students and the State.

Hannah Arendt, a great thinker of relationships between life, its limits, and the State, conceived of humanity determined by natality (we are born and the world continues through birth) conditioned by the fact that we share the earth with others. Life, for Arendt, is because it begins and persists with the lives of others. For Arendt education was central to this understanding of life. In The Crisis in Education, published in 1954, she writes:

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

In Arendt’s work human vulnerability does not necessitate a defensive posture but becomes the ethical position of sharing the world. That education is placed at the centre of this condition of humanity speaks volumes about the role education has in safeguarding, nurturing, and renewing life.

If we are to renew the world through fair and equitable education, we need to work together to think beyond ourselves, and with the complexity, precarity, and longevity of life on this planet.

And that’s hard, fraught, at times depressing, but that, I guess, is life. And the least we can do is talk about it.


Members of the Fair Access Research project will be producing regular posts about their research findings and broader issues around fair access, inclusion and diversity in HE.

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