Daily Archives: October 1, 2011


Universities Driving Social Mobility? Beyond the Oxbridge Obsession

Modern universities hit back on social mobility agenda


Social Mobility, or lack of it, is high on the Coalition Governments agenda. Alan Milburn and Simon Hughes are on the case and the main line of attack is universities. If you improve access to Higher Education then surely social mobility will improve. Not so say many experts. The issue is far more complex and defies such simplistic solutions. . And universities worry that such social engineering will make them less competitive in the global market. There is also an obsession with Oxbridge and getting more disadvantaged pupils into Oxbridge or a small group of elite universities, while ‘modern’ universities might be more appropriate for their needs.  A new report ‘Universities Driving Social Mobility – Beyond the Oxbridge Obsession’ applauds the Government’s commitment to promote a society in which people can improve their lot in life, including by studying at university. However, it warns that in spite of this aspiration, the Government’s approach to the role it wants universities to play in driving social mobility is very narrow. It concludes that it’s time to move ‘beyond the Oxbridge obsession’.  The report says that the Governments vision is very limited. In effect, it is improving access for a small number of pupils to a small number of top universities at a time when they are reducing university places. This will not lead to a step change in social mobility.  And using free school meals as a proxy for socio-economic disadvantage is a ‘highly imperfect’ measure.

By ensuring that there are more educational opportunities the Government can assist social mobility but the report stresses that this requires investment across all education, at all levels, including, particularly, the early years.  It states ‘High Quality and Free Early Years services can reduce education inequalities’ and early interventions can reduce the attainment gap between children from different backgrounds.   The report says it would be much better to incentivise ‘modern’ universities so that they can offer life changing opportunities to a diverse range of pupils from different backgrounds and at different ages. Modern Universities, the report says, provide places for those whose families have never had a member at university and recruit Black, Asian and ethnic minority students as well as students from a wide range of ages, offering flexible and part time courses. The danger is that Government policy and its obsession with elite universities will divert resources away from the more socially inclusive universities to the more exclusive ones, therefore undermining modern universities growing  and potential  role in promoting social mobility.




Yes, according to a new report-but some are not so sure


A report out last  month in the States ‘Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade from Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank, aims to convince parents,  taxpayers and policymakers that they should be as concerned about ‘ middle-class schools’  not  making the grade as they are about the failures of the nation’s large, poor, urban school districts. The report found alarmingly  that  one in four graduates from a typical middle-class high school currently fails to earn  a college degree.

In short, middle-class students are underperforming and underachieving. Yet, they  seem to be forgotten in the current policy debate which focuses mainly on schools and students in poor neighbourhoods. The report states ‘Our findings show that middle-class schools seem to be forgotten in the education debate. There is a paucity of academic literature on their performance, expectations, and on ideas for reform. Yet, they produce the students who are the backbone of the U.S. economy. Among parents of school-aged kids in middle-class jurisdictions, there is a strong belief that these schools are educating students at the highest levels. More than seven  in  ten parents with children  in public schools grade their kids’ schools as either an A or a B, and nine in  ten parents of school-age children expect their kids to go to college.  But that is far from the reality. The charge is that  Middle-class schools are falling short on their most basic 21st century mission: to prepare kids to get a college degree.’   The blurb says that the ‘report should be a national wake-up call to improve and modernize middle-class schools.’

But it has sparked controversy.  Firstly in the way the report classifies a middle class school. It is a school where the share of children qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch falls between 25% and 75% .However, this classification includes as middle class some of the poorest urban centres in the country, such as Detroit and Philadelphia.  While the report concludes, for instance, that middle-class schools perform much less well than the general public schools, parents and taxpayers believe they do , and the tables throughout the report  seem to show that the schools they classify as ―middle  class-  fall precisely where one would expect them to in performance terms — err.. in the middle—between higher- and lower income schools.