Take a minute to think about where current education policy is likely to take us in England, and to some extent in Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland run things a little differently.

I went to school in England in the years immediately after most state schools had been made comprehensive. In the city in which I grew up, no one really knew whether the old secondary modern (located in the affluent north of the city) was better or worse than what had been the county grammar (located near the manufacturing plants), and most children went to their nearest school.

But when league tables were published in the 1990s, the social divides between local schools began to widen and widen. House prices around good schools soared upwards and those schools were increasingly perceived as ‘better’ and more successful. Upper middle class parents began to calculate whether to avoid the house price hike and instead move their children from schools in weak catchment areas to private schools. Average, but not upper, middle class parents could not afford that option, but they could at least shun the worst areas with greater determination, and so sink and substandard schools became more common. To where will all this logically lead?

Today young people are told to compete ever harder to go to university and to try to go there as quickly as they can, preferably at age eighteen. Since 2012 the cap has been lifted on the number of students any university can take. This shift to competition amongst universities has contributed to devaluing other non-university routes into employment. Muddled attempts to bring back apprenticeships were made, but the educational maintenance allowance was abolished. And then English and Welsh universities began to market themselves everywhere they could with hoardings at bus stations and advertising in social media and even adverts placed on local TV. The message was ‘winners go to university’, especially to universities with the right brand image.

The successful institutions grew and grew. If this continues the city of Durham could soon become seen as solely a university town, the same with Loughborough, and Exeter, and any number of places that stole some advantage in the early rounds of the introduction of ‘the market’. Other institutions will shrink, just as the overall number of eighteen year olds is shrinking. Some smaller universities, particularly those serving peripheral communities, may no longer be financially viable and have to close.

The closure of a university will be disguised as a merger with a neighbouring town’s institution. This withdrawal of provision of higher education from some places will inevitably have a negative impact on the most economically deprived and vulnerable. Coastal towns on England’s North West coast, for example, will become places from which the talented young will flee. We will end up with more and more student ghettos and weaker, diminished communities unless initiatives such as those documented in this report are begun.

British post-war politicians once talked of the brave new world to come in which the old would live in comfortable housing in mixed communities, and through their windows they would watch as ‘parades of perambulators’ passed by, pushed by parents who smiled and waved at both the old and young around them. Some of the children went on to local higher education, others didn’t, but all could be happy and the pay-gap between graduates and non-graduates was soon at its lowest ever. Polytechnics were built for local people, just as universities had been before them. For instance, long before both World Wars, the University of Sheffield was founded with the money raised from thousands of penny subscriptions paid by steelworkers so that their grandchildren would have a university they could attend. The introduction of the market into higher education cruelly stole those dreams and the principle behind that initial investment.

The recommendations in this report will help to initiate the changes required to begin to mitigate some of the worst effects of the opportunity landscape we have created. In a normal small European mainland city there is a normal small European university. It does not boast on its website to be the best (better than all the rest in similar towns). The buildings are often not flashy, but the teaching tends to be excellent, as are the outcomes: a highly skilled multi- lingual, technically able and imaginative workforce.

Opportunities across much of the rest of Europe exist for well funded, good quality further education. That is not the same in Britain where institutions are constantly competing with their neighbours for ‘student FTEs’ and working with the perennial fear of being ‘market failures’. Good education requires some stability. In mainland Europe, the young mostly live with their families, not in student ghettos, or in apartments funded by private finance initiatives with huge returns to recoup. Remote schools and universities are helped out, not penalised.

We have a very long way to go, but with reports such as this we can begin to point the way towards a better destination and a fairer distribution of resources across the higher education sector to support high quality local provision. In Britain, young people from more isolated rural areas and poorer social backgrounds may be particularly vulnerable to losing out in our increasingly market-driven higher education system. Sorting this all out will take time. And will require many small steps.


Foreword to: The influence of place,
geographical isolation and progression to higher education, London: The Bridge Group, February 12th 2019

by Professor Danny Dorling
Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography University of Oxford

read more (full report as a PDF and link to more on-line material).


Oxford Regional and Oxford Special Area Town Planing Schemes, 1927