Regional bias is responsible for the working-class attainment gap: it can’t be ignored any longer

Just two weeks ago, NEON, the National Education Opportunities Network, released a report exploring the statistical dearth of working class students in top UK universities. These figures revealed, tragically, that ‘more than half of England’s universities have fewer than 5% of poor white students in their intakes.’

Helpfully, though perhaps overdue, this report draws explicit attention to the limitations of current efforts to improve access within higher education (HE): that is, a failure to account for the diverse and intersectional nature of underrepresentation. For the first time, bitterly entrenched regional bias has been officially identified as a barrier to social mobility, with the report’s findings showing that many working-class students living in Low Participation Neighbourhoods do not go on to participate in top HE institutions.

For a long time, we’ve known that there is underachievement of disadvantaged white youngsters across all forms of education. But now we know why: because the majority of these individuals living in ‘Low Participation Neighbourhoods’ come from regional backgrounds. Students living in those areas where university attendance is lowest – which is mainly among regional areas in the North and Midlands – are less likely to apply for ‘Russell Group’ universities, but instead enrol at ‘post-1992’ universities. Wrongly or rightly, these are considered to be less prestigious than their red-brick counterparts. The report showed that Sheffield Hallam University accepted the greatest number of poorer white students, along with Liverpool John Moores and Teeside. The top UK universities admitted barely any.

This is an issue much wider than higher education: it is about the discrepancy in opportunity between the country’s capital and its peripheries in all aspects of life. It isn’t about race. The young working-class individuals deprived from a fulfilling HE experience at more ‘prestigious’ institutions is not because they are white. It is because they live in areas with depressed local funding, terrible schools, high unemployment rates and little access to cultural enrichment.

While London and the South-East are brimming with cultural opportunities, grammar schools and ample prospects to earn a decent living (as well as all the associated ambition bound up with these phenomena), the North-East habitually produces the UK’s worst unemployment rate and possesses not a single grammar school. The capital alone boasts the highest proportion of outstanding schools in the country in both affluent and deprived areas, while the North-East sports the highest number of individuals living on free school meals (and therefore the ones less likely to make it to university).

What this report should make clear is not that working-class students are not being deliberately ‘forgotten about’ and ‘left behind’; only that the same opportunities to succeed are being withheld from them. More accurately, entire regions are left behind, and that incorporates everyone within them: it just so happens that they are predominantly white.

The ‘relative lack of white learners from low participation neighbourhoods (LPN) attending London institutions’, the report explains, reflect the small numbers of LPN in the capital, which is ‘almost universally a high participation neighbourhood area’. This explains why students of any colour living in the capital are more likely to participate in prestigious HE than their regional counterparts. NEON’s analysis found that of all applicants to HE by the LPN demographic, only 22% were accepted. More than half of UK universities have no procedure in place to prevent these students from slipping through the cracks. Instead, HE institutions accepted fewer than 20% of the applicants received from this social group. Doesn’t seem like a sensible way to incite confidence and fight cultures of exclusion, does it?

The take-away point here should be that one form of positive discrimination needn’t be privileged over another. Instead, society must focus on creating, as far as we can, an equal playing field that accounts for all forms of inequality during the admissions process by engaging with different measures of deprivation.

For example, getting 41 students from a state-school in London into Oxbridge is a massive achievement, but this in itself does little to fix the educational and participation imbalance between different regions of the country. The ‘working class’ is a broad church, but it’s important to note that everyone – including poor white students from a regional background – will benefit from wider inclusion policies.

We already have methods to track regional deprivation: now it’s time we put them to use. Take the POLAR quintile. This is a postcode tool that measures the proportion of young people in a specific area that participate at different levels of education. The POLAR4 quintile specifically looks at the proportion of young people who enter higher education aged between 18 and 19 between the years 2009-10 and 2014-15. It should be taken into greater consideration during admissions procedures as part of implementing ‘clear targets to recruit white working-class students’, which the report recommends.

Fees have so far acted as a deterrent for society’s ‘residuum’. As have cuts to local government funding in deprived areas. Rather than persist with the divisive tuition system, new scholarships and maintenance grants for deprived individuals from underrepresented POLAR regions must be created immediately in those institutions showing minimal admissions from LPN backgrounds, especially where living costs are particularly high (like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, in which LPN acceptances make up only 3%, 2% and 1% of all acceptances).

The Government, meanwhile, must undo years of regional bias in local government funding and investment. Otherwise, divides will get bigger, people will become snobbier and the UK, on the whole, will not be a particularly pleasant place to live.