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Advancing ‘social justice’ should be one of the ‘three purposes’ of universities

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 11/16/2022 Louisa Clarence-Smith
Students © Provided by The Telegraph Students

Advancing “social justice” by making sure that disadvantaged teenagers win places should be one of the main goals of universities, the new higher education minister has said.

Robert Halfon said that supporting disadvantaged pupils should be one of the “three purposes” of universities and dismissed concerns about a decline in private school pupils getting into Oxbridge. 

In his first speech as higher education minister, he told university leaders that he was “profoundly disappointed” by the row over private school admissions.  

An investigation by The Telegraph last month revealed that the Oxbridge success rates for pupils from 50 leading independent schools have declined by a third in the last five years. 

Findings about how the role of someone’s school is used in the admissions process were criticised by some parents and teachers, who accused the universities of “social engineering”.

However, Mr Halfon said that getting into Oxbridge was a “wonderful thing” for students, “particularly if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He compared the debate on private school admissions to “dancing on the head of a pin”.

“What argument do we want to have? Is it really which students get into Oxbridge?

“Or whether all our higher education institutions meet the needs of young people, who rely on them for their future employability and prosperity?”

‘Trailblazers’

He said there are “fine universities up and down the land that disadvantaged students would give their eyetooth to get into.”

The minister said that “statistics are moving in the right direction” after more disadvantaged 18-year-olds than ever before secured a university place and 50 per cent of ethnic minority 18-year-olds entered higher education last year, up from 32 per cent in 2010. 

However, he told university leaders that “the job is by no means done.”

Conservative ministers have been split on the use of “contextual” offers to help more teenagers to get into elite universities. 

Nadhim Zahawi, the former education secretary, warned earlier this year that universities should not “tilt the system” to ensure more pupils from state schools attend elite universities. 

James Cleverly, who was subsequently education secretary for a brief period, then said that universities are right to prioritise places for poorer pupils, saying he is “not uncomfortable” with universities using the background of children to decide between applicants with similar grades.

Mr Halfon called for more focus to be given to universities which offer technical qualifications, such as Nottingham Trent, Birmingham City and the Open University, which he described as meeting his definition of “elite” institutions despite their lower entry requirements compared to Oxbridge. 

He said those universities were “trailblazers” for “newly prestigious technical education, just as some consider Oxbridge as elite providers of academic study and research.

“An elite university prepares students to live full and rewarding lives, enabling them to make a valuable contribution to their communities and our economy.”

He added: “I don’t want the policy debate to be about Oxbridge, Oxbridge, Oxbridge.”

In addition to “social justice”, Mr Halfon said that the two other main purposes of universities should be “meeting the skills needs of the economy” and “providing quality qualifications that lead to well-paid jobs.”

‘Vocational-technical routes’

He urged universities to “offer students a more diverse range of high-quality options, including vocational-technical routes.”

The MP for Harlow and former education select committee chairman, has long championed degree apprenticeships, offered by big companies such as Rolls-Royce and AstraZeneca, which allow students to study at university while earning a salary with no tuition fees. 

He said: “Let’s end the social apartheid between academic and technical education. This will only happen when technical qualifications are talked of in the same breath as academic ones.

“In the 21st century, we must consider graduates’ employability.”

A report by the Department for Education in 2019 found that only 10 per cent of adults aged between 20 and 45 hold a higher technical qualification as their highest qualification, compared to 20 per cent in Germany and 34 per cent in Canada.

Mr Halfon also instructed universities to focus on “helping students into good jobs” instead of “decolonising nonsense.”

He told the Times Higher Education conference that he has asked the Office for Students to “investigate concerns about the quality” of university provision, including whether there might be an “over-reliance on virtual learning”

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