Higher education students crossing internal UK borders: student and country differences and their contribution to higher education inequalities
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Whittaker, Susan Mary
The aim of this research was to undertake cross-county comparisons within the UK in relation to cross-border HE study mobility in order to inform understanding of, and raise issues in relation to, social inequalities between students, and the role and effect in this of policy and sectoral conditions associated with where they live. The research examined whether cross-border mobility for study within the UK reinforces inequalities in higher education (HE) participation, in relation to students’ social origin, educational background and ethnicity. It contributes new knowledge on this form of HE participation, to wider research on social inequalities in HE, and on issues of social citizenship in post-devolution UK. Sectoral and policy differences within the UK provided context for the study, which also drew on research evidence on student choice and participation, and theoretically on the concept of situated rationality in both rational action theory, specifically relative risk aversion, and cultural reproduction theory as applied to HE participation. Student and country/region differences in mobility to geographical and institution destinations were analysed using Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, principally of young full-time undergraduate entrants in 2012 (N=290510; N movers=22155). Key variables were social characteristics, attainment, field of study and tariff level of the institution entered; and additionally field of study supply, average earnings and professional employment rates. Descriptive, logistic regression, marginal effects and average marginal effects analyses provided findings on student differences and inequalities in outward mobility. The findings suggest that cross-border mobility serves different purposes by country of domicile. Established paths in relation to social and geographical origin appeared important in the high outward mobility from Northern Ireland and Wales, as did HE supply within Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent within Wales. From Scotland, there was less concentration of destinations in relation to place, with patterns of mobility explained better by institution type entered; and from England mobility was defined more strongly by place of domicile for movement to Wales and by institution type entered for movement to Scotland. Mobility was associated with entering an institution with a higher average entry tariff compared to staying in the home country. An overall relationship was found between socio-economic advantage and mobility, but there were important findings that could not be interpreted as simply reproducing wider inequalities in HE participation which sectoral and policy contextual factors helped to explain. Although social class effect on mobility from England was limited, and being ‘first generation’ was positively associated with mobility from Northern Ireland. Despite the extent of mobility from Northern Ireland and Wales of students from a range of backgrounds, social class effects were strong for students from both. Shorter compared to longer distance cross-border mobility appeared less strongly associated with socio-economic advantage and more strongly with movement to lower tariff institutions. Relative field of study under-supply within the home country was associated more with mobility to lower than higher tariff institutions. Some Black and Minority Ethnic students may be mobile to enter an HEI or location with greater ethnic mix than their home area. Inflows from the rest of the UK had the strongest impact on Welsh and Scottish institutions. Cross-border mobility can be conceptualised as reasoned action based on a cost-benefit evaluation influenced both by the students’ cultural and financial resources, and external constraints and opportunities. It reinforces social inequalities in HE participation, but there is under-recognised social diversity in this mobility, as enabling policy conditions also benefit those from less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds. Such students are least likely to have the resources to mitigate any policy changes that increase the cost of or create barriers to cross-border mobility; and would be least likely to have the resources to be mobile to overcome any reduction in the availability and accessibility of HE in the home country. These groups of students that should be the main focus of concern and attention both in further policy development and in future research.