What does the Journey to a Million mean for widening access and participation, levelling up, and how do we maintain the interest of disadvantaged students?

Rt. Hon Justine Greening, Former Secretary of State for Education and Chairman of the Purpose Coalition, examines what the Journey to a Million means for widening access and participation, levelling up and how we maintain the interest of disadvantaged students.
The Journey to a Million challenge comes at a time when in many respects Britain feels under pressure from all sides. We are in the midst of acute cost of living pressures, meaning households are finding it hard to pay energy bills and put food on the table. Yet at the same time businesses are crying out for talent for roles and careers they simply cannot find skilled people to recruit into.  
Whilst the debate on growth has been centred around taxation levels, in reality, it’s an education and skills challenge that Britain really needs to focus on. 

Connecting the dots — HE and levelling up

Thus far, higher education has largely been left out of the Government’s levelling up push across the country, with little mention in the Levelling Up White Paper, published in 2022. But the reality is that our higher education sector has already done more than most other parts of our society to drive improved social mobility in Britain. Through the widening participation agenda, it has trailblazed work that provides us with real solutions to the broader levelling up conundrum Britain faces.  
With that long-running effort from higher education (HE) has come deep insight that is invaluable to a wider country now grappling with what is effectively a national plan on widening access and participation — known as levelling up.  

The sector as an engine for fairness and growth

No doubt the Journey to a Million will be an immensely difficult one on almost every level. It’s likely that any student number-based or finance-induced capacity constraints will adversely affect the most disadvantaged students. Work to support continued widening participation will be happening against a backdrop of ever tightening higher education funding, including with student fees levels essentially ushering in significant real terms cuts to higher education investment. 
The continued absence of the much-needed maintenance grant for less privileged students — an Augar proposal unfortunately rejected by Government — combined with an economy likely to have fewer of the hospitality and retail roles that often provide the crucial additional financial support for lower income family students, means there will also be a real resource crunch for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

Because of these challenges, it’s vital that the higher education sector itself more aggressively repositions itself as a fundamental engine of not just economic growth, but of driving a version of that growth that promotes greater fairness, one that can deliver a ‘levelling up dividend’. It must be a sector that is proving it can address the twin challenges of providing the skills our businesses and a wider economy needs but also in a ‘widening participation’ way that levels up Britain at the same time. It means an ever-stronger focus on closing inequality gaps by transforming lives to be at their potential and productive whilst also demonstrating that this is how we also take the brakes off an economy whose growth is acutely being held back by a lack of skills. Research by the Sutton Trust showed that simply improving Britain’s social mobility to the average of other Western European economies would add in excess of £170bn a year to the UK economy.i  

Getting on, not just getting in

Perhaps one of the most crucial challenges for navigating the Journey to a Million will also be a non-operational one at the other end of the talent pipeline — not just getting into higher education, but getting on after graduation. In other words, the ability of the higher education sector to effectively and strategically engage with employers at scale to connect graduates to opportunity. The widening participation agenda has rightly focused on access to higher education but ensuring that crystallises into opportunity for a now diverse graduate population has rapidly risen up the agenda. It means employers changing as well and learning from universities about how they also can widen access to their own opportunities and how they can then enable graduates in their early year careers to thrive and lead on to career progression. 

My work on social mobility through the Purpose Coalition is bringing together private and public sector employers with a range of different universities. Not only can they learn from one another, it’s ever clearer to me that there are real opportunities for partnerships that go significantly further and beyond existing valuable research collaboration. There is clear potential for more co-creation of emerging education pathways, whether higher technical qualifications, in relation to lifelong learning, or microcredentials, as attitudes on when and how to pursue continued learning change. And above all there is the potential for collaboration to build ‘opportunity pipelines’ from education into employment opportunity, between likeminded education institutions and employers with a common focus on levelling up and driving social mobility. 

Paving the way to a more equitable Britain

So, it’s not just the practical challenge for the Journey to a Million that matters to our higher education sector. There’s more at stake than that. It is a journey not just for the Million, not just for the higher education sector but for Britain as a whole. Because it is the journey to help finally address our country’s skills gap and levelling up. It is in the whole country’s interest that we complete that journey successfully and through partnership with communities and employers. If we do, Britain can look ahead with optimism to a version of itself that is fairer and better able to stand on its own feet, with an education system providing the skills and talent we need, and our higher education system also being a beacon and magnet for international talent that is also part of our growth story. It’s a tough journey, of course, but the destination will be more than worth it. 

iHelen Jenkins et.al (2017), Social mobility and economic success: How social mobility boosts the economy.

Rt. Hon Justine Greening

Former Secretary of State for Education and Chairman of the Purpose Coalition

Between 2011 and 2018, Justine served as a UK Cabinet Minister, including as Education Secretary from 2016-18. Justine put social mobility at the heart of the Department for Education’s strategy through the Social Mobility Action Plan, alongside introducing Opportunity Areas, the Early Careers Framework and Gender Pay Gap reporting. She left Cabinet to fully focus on her Social Mobility Pledge campaign with employers and universities. Through the Levelling Up Goals architecture, Justine has brought together the Purpose Coalition, leaders across higher education and the private and public sectors to develop levelling up strategies delivering change on the ground for communities.

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