Fair’s fair? Equality, equity and access to tertiary education

As the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) gears up, Jack Price explores what more can be done to create a fairer system for learners in Wales.

Here at the Wales Centre for Public Policy we have been looking at ways to promote greater fairness in the tertiary education system.  Our analysis considers which groups are underrepresented in tertiary education, how other parts of the UK have sought to tackle this, and what Wales might do to better enable access, retention and achievement across the sector. Here, we look at the competing ideas of equality of opportunity and equity in access, arguing that both have a place in ensuring fair access to education in Wales but more needs to be done to enable learners from less privileged backgrounds to benefit from the opportunities afforded by tertiary education.

Access to education

CTER, when operational, will have a duty to promote equality of opportunity for under-represented groups.

Equality of opportunity is not defined in the act, but has been the dominant model for fair access in the UK, linked to a post-war meritocratic model which saw individual ability as the key criterion for assessing, for example, suitability for higher education or for filling occupational roles, rather than class background or other social factors.

An equality of opportunity model was developed to implement procedural fairness. The aim was that students would gain access to universities based on objective criteria (principally A-Level grades) reflecting personal academic performance rather than factors like their family background or the schools they attended. This, it was felt, would facilitate social mobility by recognising individual achievement and merit rather than inherited privilege.

In other words, the aim of this approach was, and still is, to create a level playing field (at least formally) with the intention of allowing open competition for success.

However, some evidence suggests that while equality of opportunity has increased access, it has not resulted in equal access to higher education institutions – particularly the most selective, such as the ‘Russell Group’ of research-intensive institutions. Summarising this research, Vikki Boliver writes that:

…”while previous academic attainment is the strongest predictor of admission, admissions chances differ for applicants from different social groups even when they hold the same grades and have studied the same subjects at A-level”.

If equality of opportunity is perceived to have failed to level the playing field, then, might an alternative model need to be considered?

Boliver proposes that the ‘meritocratic equality of opportunity model’ should be supplanted by a ‘meritocratic equity of opportunity model’ which prioritises distributive over procedural fairness. This would recognise the unequal starting points of individuals within the system and seek actively to level the playing field. An example is the attempt to remedy structural disadvantage through the use of contextualised admissions. In the UK, this is primarily used to judge whether academic achievement reflects ‘true’ potential for success in higher education and to allow entry to students from disadvantaged backgrounds on the basis of lower academic achievements than students from more privileged backgrounds.

A contextualised admission approach appears to be gaining popularity in the most selective institutions which are beginning to formalise procedures to make admission offers that take into account the socioeconomic challenges prospective students have faced.

Philosophical conceptions of equality

At this point, it is worth taking a step back and thinking through why this is an ‘equity’ approach and whether and how it differs from equality of opportunity as a concept.

Equity is an increasingly-used term which generally refers to efforts to recognise that formal equality of opportunity may not take into account the different socioeconomic ‘starting points’ of different individuals, and to put in place measures to address this.

This is sometimes described, such as in the link above, as a move towards ‘equality of outcomes’. But this can be a bit misleading if it leads us to see the outcomes which need to be equalised as access to material goods, income or attainment regardless of merit. (This is normally considered untenable in practice.) A better way to conceive of equality of outcomes might be to explicitly connect outcome with opportunity, such that under-representation of a particular group in a particular desirable context is seen as ‘the measure of the opportunities, for if the outcome is not equal, we can be reasonably certain that the opportunities were not so’.

This is a consequential shift not only because it avoids intractable and often orthogonal debates around whether and how to equalise welfare between individuals, but also because it returns us to a connection between opportunity and outcome. On this reading, the distinctiveness of an equity approach is not that it moves beyond equality of opportunity, but rather that it is simply a different, stronger conception of what equality of opportunity means. As Hugh Lazenby describes ‘equality of opportunity through education’

…”if the conception of equality of opportunity requires that each individual should have the same means for a good life with differences in how they fare depending only on natural talent and choices to expend effort the educational system could then be employed to provide remedial treatment for those individuals who had been disadvantaged outside of education”.

So, for instance, in addition to contextualised admissions, institutions could put in place support programmes for less advantaged students to help those who have had uneven access to prior knowledge before their study.

Practical applications

It is notable that discussions around contextualised admissions often focus on the most academically selective institutions. In some respects, this reflects the fact that these institutions are seen to offer better individual returns than other institutions, and an upper second class or higher degree from a highly selective university still carries a substantial wage premium. However, putting in place a contextualised admission system with support programmes for these institutions is resource-intensive to provide, and in a challenging fiscal environment, CTER will need to make decisions around what type of interventions should be put in place across the tertiary education system.

Understanding equity as a type of equality of opportunity rather than as a competing and opposed means of achieving distributive justice can help us here, by providing options for when and how different conceptions of equality of opportunity should be put in place.

Often, a more resource-intensive and substantive equality of opportunity approach (‘equity’) will be needed. In addition to contextualised admissions, this might include learners who need financial support and incentives to stay in education if they are to take advantage of the transformative potential of tertiary education. Or it might be about providing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with additional financial or educational support during their compulsory education, to provide them with the early support which will enable them to access the opportunities provided by tertiary education on a more equal footing with their peers from more privileged backgrounds.

In other cases, it may be about ensuring equality of opportunity through providing a base level of formally accessible provision – for instance, the requirement in the Tertiary Education and Research Act to provide ‘proper facilities’ for adult learners is a key part of the Education Minister’s desire to make Wales a ‘second chance nation’ to help people gain new skills. These opportunities would also include, for instance, opportunities to gain basic qualifications such as GCSE Maths and English for learners who did not attain the required grades in their compulsory education.

In contexts where there is less competition for places or evidence suggests there is already largely equal access and opportunity, proactive policies to widen access may not be required as strongly. In making these decisions, however, it will be important to assess the needs of learners holistically and across the tertiary system. Our forthcoming research will provide an evidence base, allowing CTER to assess which groups are particularly under-represented in different parts of the tertiary system, and will recommend interventions to create a fairer system for learners.

An edited version of this blog appeared in Times Higher Education