Let's talk about social mobility for the many

The State of the Nation, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recent report, makes some ambitious recommendations about how to promote social mobility in the UK, which should be welcomed. It highlights how education, including higher education, has the ability to transform lives and says that a degree is one of the best guarantees of stable employment and economic security over a lifetime: with an earnings boost of £100,000. In fact we know from recent research, from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, that graduates can hope to benefit even more from a higher education degree – by up to £252,000 over their lifetime.

There is much to commend in this report. In particular that it takes a lifecycle approach to the challenge, encouraging universities to diversify their intake while also calling for everyone to play their part – government, schools and employers – if we are to make inroads against social immobility.

“A degree is one of the best guarantees of stable employment and economic security over a lifetime.”

It is disappointing, however, that the report continues to fall back on assumptions about worthwhile progression routes through higher education and beyond.

Courtesy of Glenn Simmons

Courtesy of Glenn Simmons

It highlights barriers to graduate success for students from non-traditional backgrounds, like having limited social and employer networks, and says that elite universities are the ‘gateway to elite jobs’. While we know that some traditional professions only recruit from a select number of institutions (despite the strong business case for recruiting a diverse pool of employees), we also know that going to a ‘selective university’ is no guarantee of getting one of these jobs. Private school pupils are still over-represented in ‘elite professions’, probably as a result of increased financial and social capital which enables them to identify opportunities and get their foot in the door through low (or un-) paid work experience, most likely in London. This was clearly discovered by the Paired Peers project , a longitudinal study carried out by Bristol and UWE universities. However, this evidence struggled to gain interest from policy makers and politicians.

“It is comprehensive information about the huge range of excellent pathways that is important for social mobility.”

Through this focus, the report highlights another problem in higher education, that we are failing to adapt advice, information and guidance that is fit for our rapidly changing world. The report recognises that ‘top jobs’ – in finance and law – are declining, but still recommends that the key to social mobility is getting more disadvantaged students into these shrinking jobs, while having little to say about new professions, like those in the creative industries. Here the UK is a market leader, already employing 2.5 million people (more than financial services, advanced manufacturing and construction put together), and offering many more prestigious opportunities in an industry that is continuing to grow. It is comprehensive information about the huge range of excellent pathways that is important for social mobility, not just in further education (FE), as the report highlights, but throughout schools. This is a challenge that we identified in our report, The Way We’ll Work, which called for pathways to be created and communicated to ensure that we are not wasting our talent and trapping people at the bottom of the labour market.

In this light it is interesting and contradictory that the report points out those FE courses that prepare people for jobs that don’t exist, giving the example of the 94,000 people who completed hair and beauty courses for only 18,000 new jobs in the sector. But surely this logic follows for the ‘missing 3000’; since the report, in using this language, implies that high grade students are making bad decisions if they choose to study anything other than traditional subjects for which there are declining jobs.

What you see at Alliance universities is social mobility in action. For example, Huddersfield takes 40% of its students from low socio-economic groups and has a better record of getting them into work or further study than Oxford. In addition, Alliance universities offer 50% of sandwich courses across the sector, helping those who would not otherwise have access to work experience or employer networks to get a foot in the door. We know this is essential if opportunities are to be awarded on merit rather than birth. But this activity and its impact is consistently misunderstood and underestimated by policy makers with a narrow understanding of universities and careers.

“We need to widen the focus so that we are talking about social mobility for the many.”

Recent research by the Government clearly shows that high-grade students do just as well, regardless of which university they attend. This disproves the assumption that students with high grades who do not go to a ‘selective university’ are making poor choices. These students may not be attending a specific list of universities but they are most likely to be studying on highly selective, high-grade courses, among a peer group of high-grade students and achieving some of the best employment outcomes in the country. To suggest otherwise, as language like the ‘missing 3000’ suggests, is doing highly qualified students a great disservice.

For example, Bournemouth University’s Computer Visualisation and Animation BA is the top course of its kind in the country, it has AAA entry requirements and is accredited by Skillset, the Creative Industries’ Sector Skills Council. Graduates have worked for the industry’s best-known players, such as Magic (founded by George Lucas) and Dreamworks (partnered by Stephen Spielberg), and on hit films including Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland.

We welcome this report but for universities to play their fullest role we need to widen the focus so that we are talking about social mobility for the many, across the whole HE sector, not just the few who attend a very small number of universities at age 18.

Further reading