Will getting more pupils into university improve social mobility

Professor Peter Saunders and some myths about social mobility


The benefits of the rapid expansion of higher  education were supposed to be obvious and  particularly the assumption that if you get more pupils into university they will get higher level qualifications which in turn will give them access to good jobs in the professions  and social mobility will increase . So far so virtuous. Yet despite the rapid expansion in university places over the last generation and many more graduates in the job market, report after report suggests that social mobility has actually stalled.   The evidence on social mobility is complex and sometimes contradictory. But as the Social Mobility report released a couple of  weeks ago  says ‘the broad picture is fairly clear. We currently have relatively low levels of social mobility, both by international standards and compared with the ‘baby boomer’ generation  born in the immediate post-war period’. Evidence actually suggests  that it is early  interventions that have the most effect on social mobility, and the earlier the better. If you try to engineer mobility at the university level you are basically too late.

Professor Peter Saunders  pointed out in the 2010  Civitas publication ‘Social Mobility Myths’  that educational qualifications have become what economists call ‘positional goods’. A ‘positional good’ is one whose utility declines, the more people gain access to it. When only 5 per cent of the population had university degrees, for example, a degree was a powerful passport to career success. But when almost half of the population goes to university, a degree becomes commonplace. You may be disadvantaged if you do not have one, but the advantages of being a graduate are severely dissipated. (which may go some way to explaining why 20% of new graduates are unemployed) .– ‘Simply increasing the number of graduates, or the number of people passing A‐levels, or the number of 16 year‐olds staying on at school, or the number of training places on vocational courses, will therefore achieve little in the way of increasing people’s chances of getting a high income or a middle class job. All it will do is devalue the qualifications and trigger a diploma race as people chase ever‐higher qualifications in order to distinguish themselves from the mass of other potential applicants’.  So Ministers might argue that making it easier for disadvantaged pupils to access university is a good in itself but can they argue that it will improve social mobility given that the expansion of HE appears not to have affected social mobility ? Professor Saunders is clear on this “The average educational standard of the population may or may not have improved as a result of all this expansion, but what seems certain, is that there has been no significant impact on relative social mobility’

Professor Saunders specifically attacks:

the preoccupation with expanding entry into higher education, even at the expense of academic standards;

the ‘grade inflation’ unleashed by pushing ever-increasing numbers of pupils through GCSEs and A-levels;

the attempt by government to create more middle class jobs (mainly by expanding the size of the public sector);

moves towards ‘positive discrimination’ in university selection designed to make it harder for bright, middle class applicants to get accepted;

the fallacious belief that flattening the income distribution through higher taxes and more generous welfare benefits will promote mobility.

One of the biggest myths he claims is that governments can increase mobility by top-down engineering of the education system and forcing more income redistribution.

Saunders also argues, by the way, that social mobility is much better than we let on and evidence strongly suggests  bright working class pupils, whatever the perceived obstacles,  tend to be  socially mobile.


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