Contextual admissions ‘as abhorrent as racism’ – ex-DfE adviser

Iain Mansfield warns ‘widespread discrimination’ against wealthier students weakens university funding case

October 3, 2022
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Universities are mounting “hard left” contextual admissions policies, amounting to “widespread discrimination” against students from wealthier backgrounds as “abhorrent” as racism, according to a former government adviser.

Iain Mansfield, until recently a key driver of higher education policy as adviser to universities ministers and an education secretary, made the comments at a fringe event on access at the Conservative conference in Birmingham.

Despite the intense focus on university access there is “often remarkably little evidence presented that access is unfair”, Mr Mansfield, now director of research at the Policy Exchange thinktank, told the event, hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

That was one factor in the debate shifting from fair access to widening participation, he argued, “because it absolves those pushing this agenda of a need to demonstrate unfairness and it reflects the fact that for many…widening participation has itself become the goal regardless of whether or not it is fair” – and “sometimes” such action was “achieved by methods which are decidedly unfair”.

Mr Mansfield, special adviser to Michelle Donelan until her time in government ended in July amid Downing Street turmoil, the architect of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and the Office for Students’ new regime on graduate outcomes, said the English regulator was right to focus on encouraging universities to work more closely with schools and at an earlier age for pupils.

But he argued that the higher education access and participation regime has “grown to a monster”, creating “vast edifices” in universities.

On fairness, he continued that “actually we have recently started to see some evidence of unfairness and we are seeing widespread, direct discrimination on the basis of class and background in the form of so-called contextual admissions”.

Contextual admissions policies see universities grant lower offers than usual to students who have had to struggle against deprivation or a lack of educational support.

In an apparent reference to private schooling, Mr Mansfield said: “I think we should be clear: discrimination on the basis of class or background or the aspirational decisions that a parent makes…for their child – not that the child makes but that their parents have made for them – is as abhorrent as discrimination on the basis of race or sex.”

“The fact that this is being pushed by our university system is disturbing,” he added.

Mr Mansfield said it was “fortunate” that political polarisation over universities in England was not as severe as in the US, where some surveys have showed Republicans and Democrats divided over their support for higher education.

“But if universities continue to push hard-left policies, if they continue to set one part of society against other parts, then we will see that polarisation widen,” he added.

Mr Mansfield continued that he was “often asked by vice-chancellors: ‘How can we persuade government to give us more money, because it’s a problem there has been flat cash for universities for the best part of the last decade.’”

He added in reference to contextual admissions: “This is not the way you build a consensus. While universities have the right to do this under the law, just as they do to pursue other controversial policies such as decolonisation, they should not be surprised if you pursue controversial and divisive policies it is harder to build that consensus for funding, for investment.”

In response to questions, Mr Mansfield also said that “this move to social engineering to reset the system…it is not about fair access, it is about a plan to achieve equality of outcome, and that is not fair”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

By "reaching a consensus", Iain actually means "agreeing with his hard right thinktank"... Google - "How transparent are think tanks about who funds them" (guess who comes bottom) THE - maybe think about who you give a platform to?

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