This blog was kindly contributed by Anulika Ajufo, Chair of Board of Governors, University of East London.
I know all too well that life is not a level playing field. Although education can reduce the gulf between playing fields, levelling requires much more.
I chair the board of a diverse London university. We are a careers-led university, dedicated to supporting our students to develop the skills, emotional intelligence and creativity needed to thrive in a constantly changing world. I am fortunate to have a board that reflects the diversity of its student population, somewhat unique across the sector. The diversity of my board is crucial in making effective decisions. Effective decisions are by nature representative, and representation requires empowerment. Education empowers. It is that lifelong pursuit which helps us grow personally, professionally, and socially, enabling us to become better versions of ourselves as we broaden our perspectives.
I believe in the transformative potential of education. Education transformed my life. Permanently excluded from three secondary schools and a teenage mother by 17, the prospect of higher education and a professional career were increasingly improbable as a result of my choices. Of course, it’s easy to make bad decisions when young and inexperienced, but the impact of a few poor life decisions is magnified in some environments more than others. In hindsight, I realise how easy it is for particular groups to end up on a path from which there can be no return and I am thankful for the confluence of factors that led to my turnaround story – namely; an evidence based policy that targeted teenage mothers, getting into a good university and degree programme and lastly, support into employment by a charitable organisation.
The UK government launched a 10-year teenage pregnancy strategy for England in 1999. This involved a comprehensive programme of action across four themes, one of which was coordinated support for young parents. The support programme was viewed as an important contribution to the strategy which would help young parents prevent further unplanned pregnancies in the short term and break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage in the long term. Both objectives were achieved in my case. The teenage pregnancy strategy for England was very effective. One leading social commentator described it as ‘The success story of our time’ (Toynbee, the drop in teenage pregnancies is the success story of our time, 2013). The under-18 conception rate reduced steadily over its lifespan and by 2014 had dropped 51% in comparison to the 1998 baseline, with significant reductions in areas of high deprivation. As a result of the support I received, I was able to attend university, graduating top of my class with an Engineering degree. Following this, I secured a graduate role in Finance through the help of Sponsors of Education Opportunity (SEO), a UK charity focused on supporting ethnic minorities into highly skilled professions. Without the right targeted help, access to further and higher education and a fair opportunity to compete in the world of work, my story would be remarkably different.
Tackling social mobility and skills deficit challenges across the UK requires a similar multi-pronged approach that addresses all barriers faced by young people. There is a need for evidence based long term strategies embedded in wider government programmes, which must be nationally led and locally delivered over a definite timeframe. Although the story for some ethnic groups has indeed been one of remarkable social mobility, outperforming the national average and attainment of success at the highest levels within a generation, this does not detract from the lived experience of the majority of young black people in this country. I am encouraged by the Government’s ambition to empower and uplift young people in the UK from all backgrounds and there have been significant efforts to widen participation over the last three decades. We have more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university in the UK than ever before. A record 28,030 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 quintile 1) across the UK accepted university places in 2020 – up 8% on the equivalent point compared to the previous year- despite Covid. This is evidence of progress, however, there is still much to be done.
Raising the status of technical and vocational education, providing more school-leaver apprenticeships, and offering second chances for those who do not get on the academic ladder at 16, or who fall off it during or after university are all much needed approaches. We should make every effort to champion and provide tailored support to universities focused on increasing participation, as well as creating alternatives for those who would not otherwise attend a university. Being employable is the most important outcome of going to university, however the focus on employability oversimplifies the transformative potential of the university experience. It is important that universities foster environments in which young people are encouraged to build diverse relationships, develop a social conscience and an innate value for diversity and inclusion. This is an invaluable part of the university experience particularly when a university is truly diverse.
With over a million young people turning 18 over the next decade for which higher education policy decisions matter greatly, there is a need to come to a shared understanding of the role universities play in supporting young people in accessing decent jobs post a degree. Universities should produce employable graduates; however, the onus should not be on universities to create employment for their graduates. I founded a not-for-profit over 15 years ago to focus on creating opportunities for young people from underrepresented groups in the UK. Most of our students come from ethnic minority backgrounds, predominantly black, and are between the ages of 18 and 25. They tend to have similar stories – attending university and then met with disappointment during the never-ending job search. Over the years our students have come from a variety of backgrounds, attending a mix of universities including Oxbridge and Russell Group, and have all graduated with good honours degrees. Yet they have faced the same challenges in getting gainfully employed. The commonality has been race and/or class. This has led me to believe that a university degree is insufficient in itself to change the life trajectory of a person disadvantaged by race or class. Our real impact more than anything else has been a strong support network and an enabling environment, providing the networks and know how.
There is a pressing need to create new skilled jobs and encourage businesses to expand across the country. With fewer employment opportunities for graduates further exacerbated by the COVID crisis, there is a knock-on effect on graduates from both 2020 and 2021 who are now competing for this year’s entry level roles. This will likely continue into 2022 and beyond. New graduates are also competing with early career professionals applying for graduate roles as a result of forced redundancy. The levelling-up plans should increase the provision of education, skills and training as well as career opportunities in local hometowns, addressing barriers faced by disadvantaged groups to ensure plans are effective across all backgrounds. This requires buy-in from the business community, strong partnerships between enterprise, government and civil society and most importantly, the right incentives to encourage businesses to invest in communities and create new jobs.
Aiding the post pandemic recovery will require us to tackle inequality as a priority. The levelling up agenda can have a far-reaching impact on future generations if we get it right. It has long term consequences on the viability of our country and most importantly, it is now a moral imperative. We are at an inflection point. Now is indeed the time to double down on levelling up as the Prime Minister himself would say and getting this right will require that we reach beyond familiar rolodexes to get the best candidates on the job.