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Are our children’s prospects fading?

Social mobility is in freefall. Duncan Exley examines the role that universities play in the problem.
This article is more than 5 years old

Duncan Exley is the former Director of the Equality Trust, taking time out to write on social mobility.

“Higher education”, as University Alliance points out, “is a critical engine of social mobility”, qualifying us to get jobs that our less-educated parents could not.

So it’s odd that although we have had a huge expansion in the number of people entering higher education, recent generations are now more likely to have moved down the occupational hierarchy — compared to where their parents were at the same age — than they are to move up.

The blame game

We should not jump to the conclusion that the net-downward mobility of Middle Britain can be somehow blamed on higher education institutions. As “The End of Aspiration? Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects” shows, our chances of ‘going up in the world’ or going down in the world are affected by a wide range of factors at each stage of our lives, from our early years to our later careers.

But it is worth asking what role higher education has played in mitigating or exacerbating the UK’s progress from being a nation of social climbers (as we were, on balance in the post-war decades) to one of social sliders. To write The End of Aspiration I collaborated with a cohort of people who pursued ‘ideas above their station’ in a range of careers (a barrister, a billionaire entrepreneur, a surgeon, a corporate CEO and others).

Some were the first from their family to go to university, some were the first to go to an ‘elite’ university, and others had no experience of higher education at all. Their experiences of the factors that either helped them up or tripped them up — supplemented by work with experts in academia and elsewhere to assess how representative these experiences were — can be grouped into four themes, all of which are relevant to higher education.


Theme one is ‘hostile environment vs hospitable environment’. Ambitious aspirations are more likely to be developed and pursued by those who grew up in families with secure incomes, housing tenancies and a sense of being respected by those around them. Basically, it’s hard to reach for the stars if you’re barely clinging on. This is not just an issue for families with children: students too — as Wonkhe readers will know — often find that their inadequate maintenance loans necessitate part time jobs in what could be study-time, and others have caring responsibilities or other calls on their mental bandwidth. But a “sense of being respected” is also important.

As one of my interviewees, Dean, says: “I was on a course with people from much more privileged backgrounds. I always made a social faux pas, always said the wrong thing…. I expected it to be friendlier, more diverse… I didn’t volunteer ideas, didn’t answer questions”, he says, “I was horrified when the lecturer spoke to me. I thought ‘they’ll see through me right away’”. Dean later dropped out (not for lack of academic ability – he later mustered up more confidence and is now on his second Masters course) but his experience could have been improved if academics had been required to adopt the sorts of meeting-chairing skills that are now standard in other sectors to ensure that the voices of people from underrepresented groups are heard.

Mixing it up

Theme two is ‘social mixing’: many of my interviewees mentioned a “posh friend” who made them aware of previously-unimagined career paths or acted as a guide to the arcane and unwritten protocols of privileged environments. But meeting that posh friend in a higher education setting can be difficult if they are (quietly) segregated into different courses or segregated by the affordability of accommodation.

A wider issue, of course, is the segregation between vocational routes such as apprenticeships and academic routes such as degrees, which could be eased by delivering both in the same institutions and at least partly merging delivery, in recognition that all jobs require a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

Paying the toll

The third theme is the creeping imposition of ‘toll roads on the route to opportunity’: usually costs that are allowed to creep up because people in decision-making positions tend to be too affluent to be seriously inconvenienced by them, but which others simply can’t afford. One young woman who came to my attention turned down a university place because she’d got in via clearing and therefore missed out on university accommodation but her would-be landlord required rent and deposit before her maintenance loan would allow her to pay it.

The final theme is the supply of the objects of aspiration. This is the main reason why the expansion of higher education hasn’t led to a concomitant increase in the proportion of people getting the jobs for which they are qualified: the supply of such jobs simply hasn’t kept up. This, says Rushanara Ali MP, is something a new generation of potential students in her constituency have noticed, prompting them to ask ‘what’s the point?’

There’s limits to what higher education institutions can do about this (it requires the government to have an industrial strategy with a clear plan for attracting and nurturing high-value jobs, and to apply this objective to trade negotiations, as our desperation to arrange post-Brexit trade deals won’t allow us to do) but some institutions — such as the University of Lincoln — are collaborating with businesses and local government to develop ‘local industrial strategies’.

Half hearted?

As I said, “our chances of ‘going up in the world’ or going down in the world are affected by a wide range of factors at each stage of our lives”. But higher education institutions don’t always act like that’s the case. There is often insufficient recognition of the prior experiences of students, demonstrated by half-hearted attempts at contextualised offers and admissions procedures that —and there is very strong evidence of this — favour privilege over potential.

And there is also insufficient consideration given to students’ destinations: as a report by the Bridge Group found, effective practice in careers services “is emergent at the most committed institutions, and a worryingly low priority at the least committed”, with the result that graduates from non-privileged backgrounds, who lack well-connected family friends who can provide career advice tend to drift and stumble into post-graduation jobs and are typically paid less than their more privileged counterparts.

One response to “Are our children’s prospects fading?

  1. Err, yesterday the Deaton report drew the opposite conclusion. Inequality (or social mobility) is static for men and women who don’t go to university and don’t have degrees. Its not driven by a nose-dive in the prospects of those that do end up in HE (notwithstanding that for a minority there is no benefit from their degrees: they are just atypical). Deaton indicates the causes lie in poor school attainment exacerbated by international competition and the decline of trade unions and other market barriers. This is bad news if you have low skills due to deficits in education and training. The situation would be worse (as it is in the USA) without welfare state transfers. It might be further alleviated by redirecting public spending away from the areas which have a lot of high income earners (and therefore higher tax receipts) to regions with lower incomes.

    Much of what you say in this post appears off the mark. It is worth asking whether it would be better to redirect some public spending away from higher education to other areas of education – such as primary schools and adult education. To the extent that universities suck limited resource away from these areas, they contribute to the problem but that’s all. A different question is whether universities could do more to shore up standards in schools and help with vocational training. They could do more. But so could others in the private and public sectors.

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