This article is more than 7 years old

Social mobility can be much more than just widening HE access

Mary Stuart reflects on the diverse ways in which universities can and do work with local schools and businesses to kickstart social mobility and address economic disadvantage and inequality.
This article is more than 7 years old

Mary Stuart is director of leadership development at Minerva and was vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

By their very nature universities are engaged in a broad range of activities. Joining up these dots can help us to address stagnating social mobility.

The Social Mobility Barometer – published just after the election by the Social Mobility Commission – highlighted that public faith in upward social mobility in the UK has stalled. According to the Barometer, half of 18-24 year olds believe that where you end up in society is largely determined by who your parents are. These findings echo much of the post-election analysis based on the increased turnout of this same age group (most recently estimated to be 64%, up by 16% from 2015). The Barometer also considers the geographical divide, with 71% of all respondents saying that there are ‘fairly or very’ large differences in opportunity depending on where you live in the country.

The Commission followed up with a report assessing twenty years of social mobility policy. In the foreword, Alan Milburn wrote:

“The policies of the past have brought some progress, but many are no longer fit for purpose in our changing world. The old agenda has not delivered enough social progress. New approaches are needed if Britain is to become a fairer and more equal country. It is time for a change.”

We are living in turbulent times with significant inequality across society, communities in need of up to date infrastructure, hollowed out economies, and significant political turmoil. The political map is being redrawn around on the reality that many many parts of the UK have been left behind.

Despite ongoing uncertainty since the election, there is now significant political consensus on the need to rebalance the economy and create inclusive growth (although a range of terms are used to describe this). There is also growing recognition that the drivers behind the UK’s uneven economic geography are, as ever, multi-faceted and interlinked. For example, whilst not exactly snappy, the Industrial Strategy Green Paper can at least be seen as an attempt to draw a range of these disparate strands together.

So what does this all mean for the work of universities to support upward social mobility? The focus on social mobility already grows our remit beyond widening access towards considering added value and employment. Our role as anchor institutions takes this further, to incorporate the wider economic and societal environment into which our students will graduate.

Drawing together the breath of university activities in this way is particularly important for institutions operating in those areas that are seeking to catch up: it can include our work with schools, the design of new courses to meet employer demand, and expanding our provision into further education and more diverse delivery of higher education.

The impact of a local university

Participation in higher education varies considerably across the country. In many of our major cities participation is high, but in many rural and coastal areas participation it is much lower. Lincolnshire is just one such example, and has one of the lowest participation rates in the country. It has considerably lower levels of graduates; 33% below the national average. Business density is also significantly below the national average.

It is a county that did not have a university until the turn of the century. The University of Lincoln was established in 2001 and has grown from an institution of 2,000 students then to 14,500 in 2016.  Just over a third of our students come from the region, and 44% of our graduates are employed in Lincolnshire. Lincoln is an anchor in the region, creating both high-level employment and potential employees to fill these posts. We work closely with local employers to help them innovate, creating new business models and ways of working. We encourage them to take on graduates, some of the companies the university is now working with did not have any graduates in their companies and now they have graduate training schemes.

New courses

We also develop new programmes to meet the needs of employers who cannot recruit the skills that they need. One interesting example is Lincoln’s work with Siemens Turbomachinery, a branch of the Siemens Global Engineering firm. In 2008 Siemens was concerned that it could not attract or retain graduates into their business in Lincoln. This is a common issue for market towns and cities in rural areas. Following discussions between the university and Siemens, a new School of Engineering was established. Siemens now recruits students during their study and the retention rates of graduate employees are very high.  Through early engagement with student engineers, Siemens have been able to reduce the graduate training in the company for these graduates from 2 years to 6 months.

The success of this partnership is largely due to the strong relationship we have been able to develop based on the university’s ability to respond flexibility to business needs. Working in this way has meant that the partnership has grown over time to incorporate our wider activities in research and innovation, generating further growth and opportunity within the regional economy.

Better business to business relationships

Strategically situated in South Lincolnshire, Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing serves the UK’s largest concentration of food business to advance innovation and skills. The sector is experiencing momentous change as the living wage and other drivers of cost inflation fuel the large-scale adoption of advanced technologies which requires ready access to higher level skills. While many major global food businesses are on the doorstep, few young people take advantage of the associated opportunities.

NCFM offers employer designed and driven further and higher education from Level 2 to 6. It provides apprenticeships, higher and degree apprenticeships, foundation degrees, and BSc (Hons) degrees, all specifically designed to support career development in technical, manufacturing, supply chain management, and food engineering.

In many ways it could be seen as a blueprint for Institutes of Technology.

Working with schools

On the same site as the NCFM is a primary school and secondary academy, part of the multi-academy trust supported by the university. The academy provides a very broad offer incorporating both vocational and academic routes; apprenticeships and A levels. These schools are essential in a major ‘cold spot’ for participation in higher education; POLAR data puts the surrounding areas in the bottom two quintiles for participation rates. Provision started in 2007 with eight construction students in a mobile classroom, but now in 2017 there are 305 students enrolled. In 2010 six students progressed to university. In 2017, thirty-two students currently have offers.

There are so many ways universities can work with local people to enhance opportunities far beyond widening access. In regions such as Lincolnshire, it is absolutely vital that we do so, as there are few other resources that provide such support. Our efforts in improving opportunity and social mobility can and should address the real economic inequalities that have caused the slowdown in mobility. Whether it be developing new courses with employers, diversifying provision, or working with schools, universities can provide a much needed kick-start for social mobility.

12 responses to “Social mobility can be much more than just widening HE access

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