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What role do colleges play in tackling societal inequality? - Neale Gardiner

11th August 2022

There are two key motivations that underly my desire to study the role colleges play in tackling economic inequality. The first is a long-standing personal interest in understanding the causes and consequences of societal inequality. The second is an intuition that the economic impact colleges have in this area is only partially understood and is, ultimately, under-appreciated.

As ever, there is a case to be made that colleges represent a “Cinderella sector” when we talk about the role of education in tackling inequality. In a policy context, the recent drive to tackle inequality in educational outcomes in Scotland has focussed overwhelmingly on attempts to close the attainment gap in our schools and widen access to universities. Both are undoubtedly worthwhile policy goals but, in their pursuit, the role of colleges as a potential route from poverty and means by which to tackle pervasive economic inequality, has arguably been overlooked.

That is not to say there is nothing we know about the role of colleges in this area; there are some headline figures we can use as a starting point. In Scotland, for example, we know that in 2018-2019 34.7 per cent of FE students and 29.2 per cent of HE students in Scotland’s colleges came from the 20 per cent most deprived areas, compared to 15.9 per cent of first-degree entrants at Scotland’s university. Moreover, in the same year, 41.8 per cent of those from deprived backgrounds who entered university did so via college. These headline statistics give us an idea of the role of college and tell us something of their potential as engines of social mobility.

The sector itself does also produce more focussed pieces of work on this topic. The College Development Network recently produced an excellent report entitled “Pathways from Poverty” which, through case studies, took an in depth look at the work colleges do in this area.

This is not an area that is entirely bereft of information or focus, therefore; and most of the evidence that does exist, does point to the fact, and align with the narrative, that colleges do particularly well for those from more deprived backgrounds. That being said, I believe there is room to build a more robust quantitative structure upon these, largely qualitative, foundations to develop a deeper understanding of the role colleges play in tackling inequality that can be used to make a stronger case for college’s place within the wider education system and economic policy landscape.

Particularly, I think it’s important to understand not just how many students colleges enrol from deprived backgrounds, but, more clearly, what outcomes colleges deliver for these students (relative to those from more privileged backgrounds and relative to other parts of the education system) and, thereafter, what this means for economic inequality more broadly. If it is indeed the case that colleges deliver particularly good outcomes for students from deprived backgrounds, then this opens up all sorts of questions for research and policy. For research, the obvious question is why. Are the reasons pedagogical, cultural, or do they perhaps lie in the support systems colleges have in place?

In terms of policy, developing a clearer understanding of the role colleges play in tackling inequality leads to questions around the future role and positioning of colleges in wider economic strategy. As things stand, most of the discussion around college’s contribution to sustainable economic growth centres on the ways colleges can support the upskilling of workers, and the aligning of skills supply and skills demand in local labour market. While this is certainly important, I believe the work colleges do that contributes to tackling inequality may, in fact, be one of its most significant contributions to sustainable economic growth. The argument here (that was perhaps most clearly laid out by American Economist, Joseph Stiglitz in his 2011 work “The price of inequality”) goes that excessive inequality is not only a concern because of the unfavourable social outcomes it produces (thinking here about the well-established links between inequality and things like high levels of crime or poor health outcomes), but also that it is, inherently, a drag on productivity and thus on economic growth.

It is with these thoughts and themes at the forefront of my mind that I now sit down to look at what data is available to me. I do so in the hope that by working through my research in the weeks ahead, I’ll be able to make some sort of useful contribution to my employer and to colleges more generally.


College Development Network (CDN)(2022), Pathways from Poverty: Current Challenges and the Role of Colleges. Available at:

Scottish Funding Council (SFC)(2020a), SFC Statistics: Report on Widening Access. Available at:

Scottish Funding Council (SFC)(2022b), SFC Statistics: Articulation from Scottish Colleges to Scottish Universities 2014-15 to 2018-19 (Experimental Statistics). Available at:

Stiglitz, J (2012) The Price of Inequality, New York: W.W. Norton & Company

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.