Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Is the Sutton Trust a force for good?

On Friday, the Sutton Trust announced a new, 'independent' commission to review the effect of tuition fee rises in England. I have very mixed feelings about the Sutton Trust. On the one hand I admire the success they have had in shaping the access agenda in HE, on the other I tend to think that the shaping they have done has been pernicious in pretty much every way possible. One of the disciplines I try to set myself on this blog is not to burden it with my political opinions. HE planning, regulation and funding are hardly fascinating subjects in themselves, but at least they have direct impact on students, jobs and other things that do matter. My personal politics don't. I think this post makes substantive points about HE admissions, social mobility and the like but consider this health warning before you read on: it may be a rant.

So consider the Sutton Trust, established by a philanthropist called Sir Peter Lampl with the (avowed) aim of promoting social mobility through education it has spent around £30 million since 1997 and for that very small sum of money - about two months expenditure for a typical university - had an immense impact on policy and discourse about policy. As the trust itself has said quite openly, it has a particular focus on academically talented young people with the potential to study at leading, highly-selective universities. This might be called a grammar school model of social mobility, in which the structures of hierarchy are left in place, but a few (exceptional) individuals are allowed to leave the class they are born to. Now politicians, from the Laura Spence affair onwards, have been eager to grasp this particular framing of the issue. The result is that inequality in the UK continued to grow in the late 90s and 2000s, at best moderated at the bottom end by the tax-and-transfer programmes of the last Government, not by its education policies.

Of course even this very modest approach has been opposed by some, so perhaps it is possible that without the Trust and its work, we would be openly working to embed social inequality rather than pretending to work to combat it.

This new 'commission' provides a study in microcosm of everything that I admire about the Trust and everything I don't admire. There is no substance here at all - no new data, no resources expended, no findings, just a press release. Yet that press release instantly gains high-profile coverage for instance in the BBC and Guardian. When you look at the substance of the work, it amounts to misdirection. The commission will study the effect of fees 'on young people from low and middle income backgrounds', but even passing familiarity with the data will tell you that the effect on old people, or Europeans, or men is much more of an issue because the young are the least-affected group of applicants. Finally consider the membership of the group - Will Hutton, Principal of Hertford College; Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics at University College London and the LSE; Libby Purves, Times chief theatre critic; and Sir Peter Lampl himself. Here, surely, are gathered the best and greatest of the great and the good.

Martin Hall puts it well:

While universities certainly provide life changing opportunities, they also serve as gatekeepers, maintaining differentiation by exclusion and ranking, and contributing to enduring inequalities.
The Sutton Trust, it seems to me, want to maintain both roles - life changing opportunities for a few but gatekeepers for all. A funny way of 'promoting social mobility'.

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