Thursday, 29 January 2015

Class action

The Department for Education released this week data on the destinations of key stage 4 and 5 school leavers in England, in 2012-13. The BBC picked up this story in relation to the proportion of schools which send few (or zero) pupils to Oxbridge, but there’s more to the data than that.

Included in the data was an analysis broken down by parliamentary constituency. I added to this data on the political party which currently holds the seats, and the resulting data set shows some interesting patterns.

Before the excitement of seeing the patterns, some caveats. Firstly, the data relate to England only: education is a devolved matter. Secondly, remember that this isn’t about the voting of the student themselves, or their families: it is simply the party which won in 2010 (or at a subsequent by-election) in the constituency in which schools are based. Thirdly, a few constituencies are omitted: either because they have an MP of a different stripe (Green, Respect, UKIP) or because there are no schools with Key Stage 5 leavers in them.

Just to show a modicum of thoroughness, the sample is 519 seats, of which 293 elected a Conservative MP; 184 a Labour MP and 42 a Liberal Democrat MP.

Who goes to university? School leavers in Labour seats are more likely to do so: 51.7% compared to 48.7% in Conservative seats and 46.6% in Lib Dem seats. But the population demographics are the other way round: the average Lib Dem seat saw 413 go to university, as compared to 362 in Conservative seats and 333 in Labour seats. Labour seats have fewer young people in key stage 5.

The data also tell us what sort of university they went to. DfE identify three groups here: the top third most selective, based on entry tariff (this is pretty much Russell Group plus old 1994 Group plus a few odd others); the Russell Group; and Oxbridge. Did the same pattern hold here? Hint: No!

20.1% of school leavers in English Conservative seats went to the top-third most selective universities. Slightly fewer (19.7%) from Lib Dem seats; and noticeably fewer – 15.5% - from Labour seats.

For Russell Group entry, Lib Dem constituencies nose ahead to first place: 14.6% of school leavers from Lib Dem constituencies go to a Russell Group university; 13.9% of school leavers from Conservative seats; and 11.5% of school leavers from Labour seats. 

And this patterns seems more extreme, when looking at Oxbridge. 1.4% of school leavers from Lib Dem constituencies went to Oxbridge; 1.2% from Conservative seats, and 0.8% from Labour seats.

What conclusions to draw? I think a couple of big points can be argued from the data. 

Firstly, in relation to HE policy and manifestoes: all MPs have constituents with offspring at university; and at all types of university, But for Labour MPs, the non-elite universities are more prominent; for Conservatives and (especially) Lib Dems, more elite universities are more of a concern. But for all MPs, most of the young people in their constituency who go to university go to non-elite universities.

This is the opposite of what one might expect from reading THES. University culture continues to be defined by the research elite. This is an important point for universities when lobbying MPs. The concerns of research intensive, elite, universities, will not be the most common issue raised about higher education by constituents.

Secondly, there’s a story to be read here about fair access. If the politics of the constituency MP can be taken as a proxy for economic and social wellbeing of an area (which is a defensible assumption), then it is clear that access to universities is not fair. And it isn’t only Oxbridge and the Russell Group that need to take action: the top third most selective don’t do too well here.

Food for thought, I think.

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