Social mobility or social justice?

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has released a report which makes a series of recommendations to improve social mobility.

The problem is that relying on the concept of social mobility has meant that the recommendations fail to seriously engage with structural inequalities within higher education.

The report assumes that social mobility can be a force for social justice, and the recommendations in the report focus on enabling a few people to overcome the boundaries that are built into our system of higher education.

We should, however, refuse to accept these boundaries to education in the first place.

The report’s recommendations betray the flawed logic behind the concept of social mobility itself by not aiming high enough, suggesting that social mobility is about helping young people to make choices which will lead to achieving success through entry to elite institutions.

But the over-reliance on focusing on Oxbridge as a goal, rather than making education fairer and improving access and participation across our entire sector, shows that basing policy positions on the idea of “social mobility” doesn’t work in the interest of students and instead bolsters the reputation of institutions.

What’s in it?

These assumptions inform the report’s recommendations, which include recommending the use of random allocation for applicants, and a two-tiered system of contextual offers with a minimum entry requirement and a desirable entry requirement. The report calls on the Office for Students to drive incentives for innovative admissions to selective institutions, whilst arguing that HE funding remains as a system of tuition fees paid through loans taken out by an individual student.

And the final recommendations seek to establish social mobility “rankings”, and encourage universities to undertake an internal “social mobility audit”. The authors hope these recommendations will influence a cultural shift that should result in more diversity at the most selective providers of higher education.

But by accepting the elite position of Oxford and Cambridge as natural and something to aim for, the idea of social mobility enables these providers to operate as separate from the rest of the sector. Meaningful change will not come from these top institutions and “trickle down” throughout the sector. This approach singles out students from disadvantaged backgrounds and suggests that, if you work hard, you can escape inequality – and your reward will be entry into the establishment to achieve individual success.

And that’s the problem. “Social mobility” is about escaping disadvantage, whereas social justice is about eradicating that disadvantage in the first place. Education as a tool for social justice ought to be the goal of any civic-minded university, and indeed our collective goal as a sector for our widening participation efforts to be capable of actually producing meaningful change.

It means that social mobility is the easy way out – and absolves us as a sector from being critical of selective institutions. If less selective institutions are leading the way on widening participation, then we should aim to make all of our institutions less selective, rather than recommending that we should establish a metric for judging how “socially mobile” an institution is, or implementing an admissions system based on random allocation.

Whose fault

The recommendations also absolve an institution of any responsibility to engage meaningfully with why some students are able to achieve higher grades than their peers. The barriers to education are not individual, but a result of the neoliberal policies that have left whole regions of the country underfunded and struggling. Access to higher education begins in primary school, and our current education system penalises children who rely on foodbanks for not working hard enough to overcome a barrier that was not their fault in the first place.

It is hardly surprising that one of the recommendations of the social mobility report is to change nothing about the funding of higher education. “Social mobility” distracts us from radically reshaping the HE funding system by shifting the blame for exclusion from elite institutions onto the individual itself. Free education at the point of entry for all is not about saving middle class students some money – is about a complete overhaul of how we treat education, shifting away from viewing it as personal gain and towards a public good that everyone has a right to access, with the costs shared collectively because we all benefit from education.

At NUS, we argue for a free education funded by progressive taxation because this fundamentally redistributes wealth in our society and in doing so makes it more just. Placing the current inequitable student finance system in a bubble, and thinking that changes to accounting could begin to be enough to make it fairer (while refusing to consider that education could be funded as part of wider society) keeps us from taking a social justice approach and enables the treatment of education as irrelevant to our communities.

Spare change

HEPI’s report recognises that the sector needs to change, yet reinforces the limitations of our current model by incorrectly diagnosing social mobility as a solution to an inaccessible system of higher education.

The higher education sector as a whole should commit to rejecting social mobility as a myth which undermines education is a public good.

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