The desire lines of educational opportunity

Whatever the outcome of today’s election in Britain, neither major party has much to say about universities.

For the Conservatives it’s a continuation of the past five years, despite a general consensus that the present student loan scheme is unsustainable. For Labour, it’s a focus on post-16 vocational education and new Institutes of Technical Education; universities warrant barely a mention.

More than half a million new students are admitted to British universities each year and there is a national obsession with relative status and ranking. As Nick Clegg found when he reneged on his party’s commitment to lower student fees, Higher Education is in the Too Difficult box for an election manifesto. This, though, is another way of ensuring off-manifesto freedom to do difficult things if landed with the responsibilities of power.

Vocational education is of course important, and both apprenticeship schemes and vocational qualifications are a mess. Hillary Steedman, Senior Research Associate at the LSE, points out that the baseline for the Conservative proposals is still the Wolf Review of Vocational Education, now more than five years old. This showed that low-level vocational qualifications have little value in the job market – five years of subsequent government has not cracked this problem.

This is exacerbated by the diversion by employers of subsidized apprenticeships in order to train older workers already in employment; young school leavers are still left in the lurch. The Labour manifesto takes a bet on new Institutes of Technical Education as an alternative the A-levels and university. No detail is provided, but there is a clear similarity to the present University Technical Colleges.

The problem, though, is the disparity between principle and behaviour. While many will profess parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, few parents or employers walk the walk: vocational education is right for other people’s kids; vocational qualifications are fine for someone else’s business.

What’s missing here is a sense of the pathways that have already been cut through the thickets of policy confusion. These are what architects would call “desire lines” – the determination to follow the best route, irrespective of fences and signs to keep off the grass.

Already, about half of all students admitted to British universities have qualifications other than A-levels. Some Further Education Colleges offer university-level qualifications; many successfully prepare their learners for application to university; others have entered into valuable partnerships with universities. More imaginative and progressive political leadership – from any party – would see that the primary need across all forms of post-compulsory education is for simplification and integration. Listen, and learn from the desire lines that mark out successful trajectories of attainment.

Here, research from the United States is suggestive. In the US there is a conceptual articulation between post-compulsory opportunities in public education. Although comparatively few students make the transition, there are clear progression routes from two-year Community Colleges and into universities offering four-year degree programmes. This allows the differing experiences of cohorts of students to be tracked and analysed. Because numbers are large and the data good, there is a statistical reliability in such research, which provides a good test of the efficacy of existing policies and of political assertions. There are now many large studies of this kind and they have a good deal of relevance for other national education systems, despite the particularities of the US model.

A recent research report from the National Bureau for Economic Research focuses on the point of articulation between two-year Community College and four-year university programmes. The starting point for the study is the policy problem of low completion rates that has “prompted debate over the extent to which the problem is attributable to the students or to their choice of colleges”. David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times:

How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree.

A version of this debate exists in many national contexts – “is university for everyone?” The assumption that too many people already go to university is inherent in both the Conservative and the Labour policy positions; the skeleton in the cupboard is whether, at the margins of admissions decisions, the key factor can be a pure measure of ability or if socioeconomic circumstances have a role. The NBER study addresses this question.

The NBER report uses data from the state of Georgia’s four-year public college sector. Here, there is a mandatory minimum SAT score for admission. This allowed the researchers to compare the subsequent outcomes for those students just below the cut-off with those just above. The results showed, with appropriate levels of statistical confidence, that about half of the applicants who just made it over the line went on to complete their four-year degrees in the more selective state university, in comparison with less than a fifth who just missed the SAT cut-off and instead enrolled in a less selective university. In particular, this consequence was more marked for low-income students.

The message from this study for policy makers is that it is worth investing at the margins of admissions in order to improve student success rates. This is good both for individuals, who are able to fulfil their aspirations, and for public investment, because drop out rates are reduced and the overall qualification level of the workforce is improved.

The NBER’s work suggests that, in the British context, it would be well-worth looking at the fortunes of students at the interface between Further and Higher Education and at progressive innovations, where these exist, that go against the grain in joining up the post-16 pathways.

Sadly, there is no evidence for such an interest in either of the major party’s visions for the next five years.


Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith: :College access, initial college choice and degree completion”. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 20996, February 2015:

David Leonhardt: “College for the masses”. New York Times, 24 April 2015

Hilary Steedman: “Conservatives fudge the numbers on apprenticeships”. The Conversation, 4 May 2015.

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