Moving on up: what social mobility success looks like

Figures show that Britain still has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world and the situation hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. Most accept that education is an engine of social mobility, but how easy is it for students from deprived backgrounds to flourish at university? Peter Riley asks why widening participation students fare less well both in terms of degree results and employability and suggests that even though more working class students are  attending university we are still a long way from achieving higher levels of social mobility to put us on a par with the rest of Europe.

Photo credit: Nottingham Trent University

Twenty seven years ago, I remember hearing the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, say the following:

“Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get into university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick? Did they lack talent? Those people who could sing and play and recite and write poetry? Was it because they were weak? Those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football; does anybody really think that they didn’t get what we had because they didn’t have the talent or the strength or the endurance or the commitment? Of course not. It was because there was no platform upon which they could stand.”

For me this simple but profound statement made a significant impact. Both my parents had left school without any formal qualifications, yet I was on the brink of applying to go university. Today I find myself working in a role and at a level which I could not have risen to without a degree: a university education has been the basis of my social mobility.

However, whilst at university, I experienced barriers that other students from different backgrounds would not have faced. Doing an Engineering degree I needed to get some work experience, but with no contacts I was forced to write speculative letters to employers. Not surprisingly, in the midst of a recession, I failed to get the work experience, which then meant I was in a weak position when applying for jobs against my peers who had gained relevant experience.

Widening participation

Whilst this was many years ago, and much has changed, it taught me a few lessons which are pertinent to current discussions around social mobility. Firstly, education is the key driver to social mobility. Whilst there will always be the exceptions of those who have become successful despite not having a degree, there can be no disputing that those who experience higher education will, on average, have greater opportunities for promotion and advancement and earn significantly more over their lifetime than those who don’t.

What has been striking in recent years is the almost universal political support for widening participation. Whether this is driven by a sense of social justice (that all people regardless of background should have the same opportunities), or through a more economic argument (that the more qualified the workforce, the more competitive the economy) all major political parties seem to agree that we need to increase the numbers of people with higher level qualifications.

However what is equally striking is the change in the dialogue around widening participation in recent years, away from just getting more working class pupils into university, to an increased focus on the outcomes for different groups of pupils to ensure they get a comparable experience.

Both the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) are increasingly emphasising the retention and progression of “Widening Participation” students as much as their recruitment.

The increase in fees has also led students (and particularly parents/carers) to increasingly focus on the likely outcomes from a university education. Whilst they may not all use the phrase, it is clear the potential for social mobility is a key driver to widening participation in education.

Re-focusing the debate

The focus on outcomes however provides fresh challenges to institutions. Why is it some groups of students significantly under-perform at university compared to others who entered with similar profiles? HEFCE’s recent report, Differences in degree outcomes, highlights some stark differences: 72 per cent of White students who entered higher education with A-level grades of BBB gained a first or upper second class degree, compared with 56 per cent for Asian students, and 53 per cent for Black students, entering with the same A-level grades.

It is all too easy for institutions to make this debate about the student: why are these students doing less well than those ones; what haven’t they got? This is an argument frequently directed at non-A level entrants. However surely the debate needs to be ‘why is the university experience we provide not as well suited to these students as it is to others, and what can we change?’

There is no benefit  in taking a greater diversity of student, and variety of entry qualification, if we teach everyone in the same way we have always taught them. There needs to be a recognition that ‘equivalent’ entry qualifications have distinct and important differences.

Part of a university education has to be about preparing all students for the type of assessment they will undertake, as well as developing their understanding and knowledge of the subject content. We wouldn’t expect a student to write an academic assignment without preparing them for the style and format expected, so why do we assume all students can sit a summative written exam?

Preparing students for work

Another focus for the social mobility debate is employability and how successful universities are in getting students into ‘graduate’ employment. Universities clearly have an important role in preparing their students for the workplace and providing a range and skills and experiences that will enable them to compete with other graduates.

True social mobility can only be achieved when all graduates are given an equal chance in the employment market. Those employers who focus on graduates from a select group of universities deny opportunities to the majority of working class graduates, who, statistics show, are less likely to attend highly selective institutions.

The response of some to this is that we need to get more working class students into these universities so they can compete for these jobs. This perpetuates the myth that some universities are ‘better’ than others. Surely graduates should be assessed on the skills and abilities they have rather than the reputation of the institution they attended?

Higher education has been transformed in a generation from the privilege of the advantaged to the right of all. Whilst it is important that we continue to focus outreach activities at those groups which remain under-represented, the challenge for the next generation is to strive to ensure the outcomes from Higher Education are equitable for all types of students, and that they graduate into an employment market where they have an equal chance of success, regardless of background.

Then and only then can we claim to have achieved social mobility for those from widening participation backgrounds.

The views expressed here are those of the author Peter Riley and not necessarily those of Manchester Metropolitan University

Leave a Reply