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.


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