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.




Milburn pitches in

But are Universities the right target?


Social mobility is important because it raises aspirations, creates better connections between and within communities (more important now perhaps than for a generation), and reinforces the value of education and skills.

Worryingly for governments, despite huge investment in widening access to education in the last decade or two, research suggests there has been no comparable increase in social mobility – quite the reverse.  Social mobility can be thought of in absolute and relative terms. The former refers to processes of adjustment in the income or occupational structure of the economy. The latter, sometimes called ‘social fluidity’, is associated with an individual’s opportunities for progression within the social hierarchy However, trends in social mobility are remarkably resistant to policy interventions. Those in higher social classes appear to have been able to take greater advantage of the opportunities created by policy interventions and more able to use a variety of additional social advantages to maintain their relative position.

The factors involved influencing Social Mobility are thought to be:

Social capital –A lack of positive role models, negative peer pressure, poverty of ambition and aspiration and risk aversion etc

Cultural capital – can also help middle-class families to confer social advantages on their children, increasing their potential to move upwards and protecting them from downwards movement in the social hierarchy.

Early years influences – are seen as key to influencing later life chances.  Convincing evidence shows that early experiences such as the quality of the home environment, family structure, pre-school care and relationships with caring adults produce a pattern of development in later life that is hard to  reverse even through schooling.

Education – appears to be one of the most important factors influencing social mobility. However, there is considerable evidence that the introduction and expansion of universal education systems in the UK and Western Europe have , not led to increasing levels of relative social mobility.

• Employment and labour market experiences – substantial levels of worklessness and long-term economic inactivity have emerged in some areas and/or among specific population groups.  Second, research has identified the emergence of a prominent ‘low-pay – nopay’ cycle for some groups.

Health and wellbeing – ill-health results from social and environmental factors identified with lower socio-economic status, and ill-health and caring responsibilities can lead to declining socio-economic status.

Area-based influences – localised environmental problems appear to combine with socio-economic disadvantage to produce negative area-based influences on potential for social mobility. For example, inequalities in access to private transport combined with poorer quality provision in some important public services in deprived areas may mean that lower socio-economic classes are unable to exercise effective choices over access to these services.

Alan Milburn the access Czar has recently, like many others before, said that universities should do more to encourage greater access to Higher Education, particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils. There is always a simple solution to addressing a complex problem that is wrong.  We have seen how many factors actually influence social mobility -education is but one- important though it may be.  A report for the  Department of Work and  Pensions (2007) ‘Factors influencing Social Policy’ said that:  ‘while educational attainment remains a strong predictor of future social position, there are strong influences on educational attainment  which are outside the scope of formal educational provision. For instance, patterns of development are often set prior to starting formal education, suggesting that early experiences are central to understanding both educational attainment and social mobility. However, many of these early years influences are outside what is normally thought to be the scope of public policy and are heavily associated  with family dynamics, parenting and home environment.’

It does seem that social mobility  may be  very resistant to  centrally driven  interventions because of the number of factors at play and the multi-faceted  dynamics underpinning  social mobility. But most experts on social mobility believe that the earlier you address the issue, in education,  the more likely you are to achieve the outcomes you want. Many critics believe that pressuring universities to take more with  lower grades  is not the right answer. Trying to force social mobility at such a late stage is actually counter-productive. True, a pupil at  a  poor school who achieves an ABB at A level probably deserves a place on a course much more than a privately educated pupil ,going for the same course with equivalent or slightly better grades, although quite where you draw the line is less clear But, A level Grades  are  set to establish  to what  degree pupils have acquired  the knowledge base, information processing, analytical  and  communication skills required  to succeed at University . There is a big difference in this respect between an A* student and one securing a B Grade. Good GCSEs are also important indicators for admissions tutors. They want to see breadth and consistency across subject areas.  Yet a lot of teachers’ work in state schools is focused on getting  pupils  up to a C grade at GCSE, because that’s how league tables work. Schools are given government incentives to get a certain number of students above a C grade. But there’s no incentive to help them get from a C to an A*, whereas at fee-paying schools students are pushed to go for those top marks and they are the ones who get into the top universities.’ Proper support for our most able pupils in schools remains in short supply, although these are precisely the pupils who have the most potential to be socially mobile. Pupils also are not getting the kind of good,  face to face professional advice and guidance and mentoring they need to raise their aspirations and expectations-so crucial for social mobility. Making the right choices at the key decision points in a young person’s education and career can open or close a lifetime of opportunities.

The fact is Governments  have not  had a joined up policy to aid mobility, and it is not, in any   case, a policy area that easily lends itself to top down interventions.   There is no reason why this government will be any more able to ease social mobility than any other to my mind particularly given their obsession with Oxbridge.