Social mobility is an emotive subject. While the idea of social mobility itself is now more or less accepted as a good thing (rather than unacceptable state interference), means of achieving it are still disputed. Some would prefer to concentrate effort on a deserving few with the potential to succeed in the most prestigious institutions and professions. Others would rather increase opportunity that little bit for everyone.
The current argument about grammar schools suggests the balance is tilting towards the former. This is not the best way to meet the needs of modern society. The late (great) higher education thinker Professor Sir David Watson argued in 2009 that “we need to get past the zero-sum assumption of the ‘positional good’ and ensure that wider participation benefits society as a whole.” If Britain can only succeed as a knowledge economy, we need the majority of the population to be educated to higher levels. This will not be achieved in an education system where opportunities to study at a higher level are restricted for the few. Social mobility should mean helping everyone to achieve their potential.
Who’s selective now anyway?
In order to achieve this, diversifying access to and means of attaining higher level study should be our priority. Some students want to study full time through traditional three or four year courses. They need support to gain entry to the university that is right for them, recognising that our diverse system offers many different kinds of excellence. But success shouldn’t be measured by how many young people go to “selective” institutions.
As Edward Peck of Nottingham Trent University argued earlier this year for Wonkhe, the majority of universities have selective courses, but they also have recruiting courses as well. Almost every university in the country had places available in clearing this year to fill some of their less popular courses. Students should be encouraged to think about their talents and aspirations and then find the institution and course that will help them achieve this – whether in rocket science or midwifery – and not merely seek out “selective” institutions for their own sake.
For other students, we need to re-evaluate what we mean by ‘potential’ and how we identify it. More often than not, the debate about social mobility through higher education looks at young students with A-levels studying full time, to the exclusion of other groups. The government’s aspiration to improve the visibility and prestige of vocational routes alongside academic routes, set out in the recent Sainsbury Review, is going in the right direction. We should be mindful, however, that in the past some students with vocational qualifications studying in some subject areas have found it harder to participate and succeed in higher education, struggling with the academic skills they need to thrive. This is made even more difficult when their tutors, who probably came through academic routes themselves, have a limited understanding of vocational qualifications and undervalue the skills that they enter university with, such as independence, self-motivation and practicality.
Universities can help tackle this. Rather than reducing the tariff points for vocational qualifications – which lets universities off the hook – institutions should be encouraged to flex entry and assessment criteria to recognise the additional skills these students bring. Universities also need to design courses in a way that helps all students to learn – not just those from traditional backgrounds with traditional entry qualifications. Employers recruiting graduates must help too by looking beyond the traditional mould when hiring talent.
On the bus, off the bus
Debates on social mobility focus too much on young full time undergraduates, forgetting that the vast majority of those who’ll make up the workforce in a decade’s time are already in work today. Many will only be able to fulfil their potential if they can enter education, gain new skills, or engage with higher education multiple times or at different stages throughout their lifetime. This means offering more flexible provision and funding options.
Many workers in mid-career would be best served by a system that allows them to ‘hop-on’ and ‘hop-off’ their education, learning skills that have immediate use, gaining credits that are recognised across the whole sector, and using these credits to build full qualifications over time. Others might prefer accelerated learning – where they can complete a traditional degree in two years rather than three by working across holiday periods.
These are challenges that Alliance universities are addressing in particular. For example, Coventry University College has been set up to cater to those who want, or need, to study in more flexible ways. Their provision is designed to be modular with students able to begin a course at any point throughout the year. This ‘hop on, hop off’ study enables students to more easily combine study with other commitments. Alliance universities have a generally higher proportion of part-time students than the wider sector: 40% of the University of South Wales studies part-time.
Yet current restrictions on funding continue to make it difficult for those who want and are able to study at a faster pace. A student who begins the academic year late but is able to catch up with their peers can’t get student loan funding to begin their next year of study until a full calendar year has elapsed. The lack of comprehensive careers information, advice and guidance also leaves many who could benefit from flexible study options completely unaware of their existence. Until the government addresses these issues there are limits to what universities can achieve by themselves within the constraints of the current system.
The combination of a new programme for education reform, devolution to cities and regions, and a new industrial strategy might just provide the catalyst needed to create a joined-up and coherent framework for more flexible and part-time study. True social mobility will only be achieved once we focus on enabling all students – with their varied needs, aspirations and abilities – to achieve their potential.