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Moving on up? What the Social Mobility Barometer means for UK higher education

  • 19 June 2017
  • By Diana Beech

In January this year, the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, set out the role of education in removing obstacles to social mobility. She proclaimed she wanted ‘to see more disadvantaged young people attending the very best universities, … entering the top professions, and progressing through the most rewarding careers.’ Under her watch, and even long before, our universities have worked hard to widen access and participation. Yet, a recent report on public attitudes to social mobility in the UK makes for bleak reading for the sector.

The first Social Mobility Barometer, released on Thursday by the Social Mobility Commission, is a poll of nearly 5,000 people from across the UK. It indicates that over half (51%) of young people aged 18-24 believe that where you end up in society is largely determined by your background and who your parents are. According to the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission Alan Milburn, young people ‘increasingly feel like they are on the wrong side of a profound unfairness in British society – and they are unhappy about it’ – something that was effectively shown with the high turnout of young people to the ballot box on June 8th.

When it comes to comparing the situation of today’s adults to those of their parents, the standout area in which improvements have been made is education, with two-thirds of people across the generations (64%) believing they received better education than their parents did. This could be due to a number of factors, including advancements in knowledge and technology, equal opportunities for both sexes, and more choice of schools, colleges and universities. However, behind the obvious progress that has been made in this area lies evidence of yet more work to be done.

Most significantly for the sector, the public believe that those from poorer backgrounds have less opportunity when it comes to getting good qualifications and going to university. Over two-thirds (68%) of respondents think that poorer people are less likely to go to university and three-quarters (76%) say poorer people are less likely to go to a ‘top’ university. Only one-in-ten respondents believe there are equal opportunities for people to go to a ‘good’ university regardless of background.

While poorer people are regarded as being held back from educational achievement, the inverse is true of those from more affluent backgrounds, who see their wealth as having benefitted them educationally. Of those who say they were well-off or comfortable financially when growing up, 60% perceive themselves to have had either ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ advantages in education. And the class divide goes further: one-third (34%) of respondents from a working-class background say that they find it difficult to fit in around people who come from more affluent backgrounds, adding weight to findings that students from poorer backgrounds tend to drop out of university due to feeling isolated and less well integrated.

Finally, when it comes to linking up education to the labour market, only one-fifth of 18-24 year olds believe they have a better level of job security compared to their parents. Exactly half of respondents believe that those from poorer backgrounds have less opportunity to obtain work experience and internships, while 66% say poorer people have less chance of getting into a professional career such as law or accountancy.

What lessons can universities take from this?

The Social Mobility Barometer should be a wake-up call to the sector that there is still much work to be done to address educational opportunities in British society, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite the progress that has been made to date, we are still far from establishing a level playing field for young people when it comes to fulfilling their educational potential. To address this imbalance, recent HEPI research recommends that higher education institutions:

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