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Aim Lower: Social Mobility and Higher Education in the Levelling Up Era

  • 3 November 2021
  • By Chris Jones

This blog was contributed by Dr Chris Jones,  Lecturer in History and Widening Participation (WP) Academic Officer at the University of East Anglia.

The appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh as chair of the Social Mobility Commission has caused some concern that the culture wars are far from over. A recent paper by the new deputy chair of the Social Mobility Commission suggests little cause for optimism. The report uses many of the rhetorical tools of the Government, most notably creating an ‘us’ (‘real people’) and ‘them’ (‘social mobility champions’). Social mobility champions are accused of having ‘lost focus on the role that a socially mobile society should have in matching all members of society into occupations and roles which they are suited for and enjoy, and at which they excel.’ Indeed, they give little attention to ‘the actual aspirations and ambitions of real people’. This dichotomy is a continuation of the ‘woke wars’, which intends to provoke a cosmopolitan and liberal left against a silent common-sense majority. ‘Social mobility champions’ here are surrogates for the ‘woke left’ portrayed as patronising and condescending towards ‘real people’. They are only interested in students who want to ‘leave to achieve’, which is certainly not a predisposition that I nor my colleagues working in Widening Participation at UEA share; we want aspirant students to study what is right for them and where is right for them, and this sentiment is broadly shared across the sector. Moreover, social mobility champions are portrayed as spending too much time worrying about equality rather than ‘rules of the game’. But the two are inseparable. It is necessary to improve opportunities for those who are disadvantaged to change the rules of the game.  

We know that not every group has an equal chance of upward social mobility, and that social mobility is often fleeting. It also becomes increasingly difficult when inequality increases, such as in the context of Covid-19. Interestingly, ‘levelling up’ appears to offer little new intellectual insight in how to address social mobility: where David Cameron spoke of ‘belief in equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcome‘, Johnson speaks of ‘making opportunity more equal‘. But people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, face several bottlenecks in our structure of opportunity; opportunities are not equal. We need to continue to consider discrimination and disadvantaged groups, but we should also be thinking about why we guide certain people along certain paths. Technical education has been historically classed, and, unless we achieve a parity of esteem between academic and technical education, it will not play a significant role in producing upward social mobility nor addressing inequalities. It will be telling students that opting for technical education is to aim lower. Perhaps if we were to see a cabinet minister’s child opt for a T Level with the full unquestioning support of their parents, confident that this will not affect their child’s earning potential or social status, then we could take these commitments to social mobility to be sincere. But in the absence of such an unlikely event, we need to consider the pressures that constrain people’s opportunities — whether social, cultural or material — and provide alternative paths and trajectories towards different outcomes and destinations.

Set against a broader context, the Government’s ‘levelling up’ programme will not offer this. Indeed, the Government intends to scrap BTec qualifications, which, as a February NEON report highlights, could prevent over a quarter of students from lower participation neighbourhoods, a third of Black students and a quarter of Asian students from entering HE. The DfE’s own impact assessment highlighted that the reforms would disproportionately affect Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic students, students with Special Education Needs and Disability, and those who have received free school meals. But even if we go beyond group-based inequalities, these reforms will needlessly restrict access to further education, which has become an important path to HE for hundreds of thousands of students. Creating a minimum entry threshold for access to HE will also create further bottlenecks, particularly for those pupils classified as disadvantaged. This will create a systemic problem of access to appropriate training and education for people all over the country and the replacement T Levels even risks creating a skills and worker deficit. It is not even clear whether it will be possible to provide enough placements for T Levels to function as intended.

As a society, if we conceptualise and understand social mobility as it is presented in Policy Exchange’s Rethinking social mobility in the levelling up era, we risk inculcating such a narrow vision of aspiration and social mobility that – even if the Government is able to frame levelling up as a success – will fail future generations. Whilst mobility is experienced differently by different peoples, not everybody has the same influence in shaping public perceptions on social mobility. In this context, framing young people’s understandings of themselves and their relationship to education, and the value they place in it, has a profound impact on their choices, and this is particularly pronounced for disadvantaged groups. It also underestimates students from disadvantaged groups and falls into the trap of assuming that they are incompatible with universities. Working on the ground as a Lecturer in History and Widening Participation Academic Officer in the East of England, I know that young people in ‘left-behind’ areas do not lack aspiration, but they do lack the resources, support, and quantity and quality of opportunities to fulfil their goals. I also know that much important work is happening in the sector – Widening Participation, curriculum reform, better links with FE providers – to ensure that institutions themselves are more inclusive and reflective of all students who would like the opportunity to enter HE. This work needs to continue, yet another set of educational reforms will threaten to deflect attention and resource away from it. The answer is not to direct students in ‘left-behind’ areas away from universities, towards a technical education. It is to provide a plurality of opportunities – technical education and academic education rather than technical education or academic education – that provides people at any stage of their life with the resources, confidence and skills to fulfil their ambitions.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    If we seek greater “social mobility” and seek to “level up” more locations and enable more individuals to succeed and excel in areas where they have a natural talent then we must focus on “.. more technical education and academic education rather than technical education or academic education.”

    Universities would do well to highlight their existing contribution to skills development through offering degrees in law, education, engineering, medicine, nursing and architecture to help promote the “parity of esteem” agenda by showing they are already recognising the importance of skills.

    It is bizarre that construction skills are not already regarded as being of equal importance by many parents as a degree in English, French or History. There is plenty of evidence to show that those with Apprenticeship qualifications at level 3 and above in the building industry can result in higher incomes.

    Social mobility is achievable just as well by following an Apprenticeship route as it is by getting a University degree.

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