‘Sheffield Hallam is noted for taking on the highest numbers of students from low participation neighbourhoods.

Half of universities have fewer than 5% of students from poorer white backgrounds. Just trying to boost numbers isn’t enough

At half of England’s universities, fewer than 5% of students are classified as being from disadvantaged white backgrounds, according to a new report from the National Education Opportunities Network (Neon). This fact is bluntly stated as being a problem in the introduction of the report rather than the conclusion, but it is worth looking beyond these headline figures. What do reports like this really tell us?

Who attends university, and which university they attend, is a question that captures commentators and policymakers, for reasons that are related to but not fundamentally about education. Universities are both pathways and gateways. They can help train you to get somewhere new, but they also work to make sure that only the right sort of people get into positions of power. These functions overlap, but aren’t the same.

You can see the tension when we talk about, for instance, the “less prestigious post-1992 universities”. Sheffield Hallam is noted for taking on the highest numbers of students from what are called “low-participation neighbourhoods” or LPNs, but what’s wrong with Sheffield Hallam? We are forever talking about the role of universities as providing “preparation for the world of work”, but there is little discussion of the divide between the kind of work the majority of students are preparing for and the kind of work the people who make policy want them to do. Doing a nursing degree at Teesside, which comes third on the list of universities with students from LPNs, is a pretty good route into the NHS. But if you want to head into a life of talking about or making decisions about the way we train, pay and employ nurses you’re better off going doing something like PPE at Oxford or modern history at Cambridge.

Previous conversations have focused on getting more “white working-class” students into classics at Oxford rather than asking why someone doing architectural technology at Liverpool John Moores is never going to be the housing minister. Similarly, it may be worth asking what underpins the push to get more people from less privileged backgrounds into university, rather than asking why going to university is regarded as a panacea. After all, these “low-participation neighbourhoods” are also the “post-industrial communities” whose cultural identities are tied up with the loss of mining or manufacturing. Is a university education really an answer to this problem?

Nor does it help that we cannot separate the role that the university system has in perpetuating the class system from its role in enabling working-class people to move away from their backgrounds – an expectation that middle-class families do not reckon with in deciding whether their children should attend university.

If your children get a degree, they’re likely to move away – they don’t bring their new petrochemical engineering skills back to your hometown, because there aren’t the job opportunities. Even if higher education did work as a flawless pipeline for social mobility, there would be an emptying-out effect. And then what happens to the people who, for whatever reason, never got those degrees?

A solution that relies on a proportion of individuals being granted the capability of getting away and moving up will never be a real solution. It’s no surprise that negative attitudes and parental fears of “losing” their children figured highly among the barriers to attendance cited in the report.

What if you feel as if you’re choosing between building a life close to your family and building a career? Or what if you want to leave but feel as if doing so would be letting the side down?

Unpicking these attitudes is complex, especially when we throw ethnicity into the mix. The fact that specifically white working-class communities are underrepresented can lead commentators down some dubious paths. It’s only a short error of reasoning to “these Asians are hardworking and that’s why they get on, not like the lumpen whites”. Similarly, we see libertarian speculators from the Spiked or Spectator set arguing that the imbalance proves that there’s no such thing as racism except against white people. It is difficult, especially when everyone doing the analysis has gone to Balliol rather than Salford, to get to grips with the way the particular histories of place, especially places that have undergone recent economic upheaval, can create negative attitudes.

It is to be expected that migrant parents will have different expectations of their children than those in post-industrial communities that are “left behind”, regardless of ethnicity, simply because of local experiences and history. But at the same time we should not look to this as a full explanation, nor see the solution as being yet more “engagement” programmes to persuade people from these places that they just have to sort their attitudes out.

The focus on individual rather than systemic solutions permeates too much of our debate on this issue, in terms of framing both the problems and acceptable solutions. The social issues caused by the closure of factories and steel mills cannot be solved by simply getting more children of factory and steel workers into higher education, especially if the net result is to empty out these towns and leave them older, poorer and sicker than before.

This should not be taken as an idea that I am against education or “getting on in life”, nor that I have an issue with academic degrees such as literature or history as opposed to more vocational courses. Rather, I am saying that we need to be able to investigate the relationship of our higher education system to the rest of our society, including the complex myth-making that surrounds it, and that we should not expect easy answers.

Unfortunately, complex analysis rarely survives an encounter with a policy machine that likes to see things in terms of league tables and easy metrics. We want to set goals and targets such as “increase the number of students from LPNs being accepted into our top universities” because that’s measurable and technical. But for policy to make a difference, it is going to have to engage much more deeply than that.