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Social mobility cannot be divorced from inequality

Randall Whittaker on social mobility in HE, arguing that without a refocus on inequality, we should give up on achieving upward social mobility, and entirely revise expectations on the role that higher education has to play.
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Randall Whittaker is Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic at Leeds Arts University.    

It is disappointing that in UK higher education we continue to talk about social mobility divorced from (rising) inequality. Unless we are prepared to make the link between the two, we should give up on achieving upward social mobility and completely revise expectations of the role that higher education has to play.

In his speech given to the Universities UK Annual Conference on 9th September, Universities & Science Minister Jo Johnson MP highlights the government’s focus on ‘driving forward social mobility’ and increasing participation. Data collection, sharing and analysis feature heavily in the speech. There is specific reference to UCAS agreeing to start sharing data through the secure platform developed by the Administrative Data Research Network. Although it is encouraging to see references to prior attainment and social background in the speech, there is no explicit reference to (rising) inequality. It is thus clear that for the minister, effective widening participation interventions requires more data.

It was Alan Milburn who recently called for UCAS to release data on applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. I was surprised by this and the assertion that ‘proper data’ will lead to ‘effective action’ suggesting that metrics alone can influence social mobility.

Over the past few months, senior higher education leaders have had much to say about social mobility, opinions and reactions are typically varied but do offer up some interesting debates. There does however seem to be consensus that higher education can and should to more.

In 2014, the former vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University Michael Brown recommended that higher education policy in the UK should be redirected towards “output” measures of social mobility. In other words shifting the focus from the admission of students to what happens once they leave. The report also unveils a prototype Social Mobility Graduate Index (SMGI) which would rank British universities by the professional outcomes they achieve for their students. A tool for comparing the success of institutions in getting disadvantaged students into graduate level employment. 

Mary Stuart, vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln wisely argues on this site that “too narrow a focus has been placed on access to higher education as the key to social mobility and that while fair access is essential if higher education is to promote social mobility, it is not in itself sufficient”. 

Whilst Geoff Layer of the University of Wolverhampton agrees that higher education can do more but warns of the dangers of using simplistic measures to understand highly complex circumstances. 

Metrics are of course crucial but I do wonder if the time has come to examine the purpose of student outcome data. The interpretation of data associated with social mobility, for example, is a complex undertaking and it takes considerable time to measure. It is only possible to examine intergenerational earnings of those in their mid to late 30’s (born in the 1970’s) in comparison to their parents now. I am therefore unclear about the purpose and relevance of publishing this type of data and using it alone as a measure to judge higher education institutions performance on social mobility.

Speculation is rife that the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework will use student outcomes data as a basket of measures to assess and reward excellence. Using participation data in such a basket could have significant reputational impact on the good work that higher education institutions are doing in this arena. 

The creation of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) and the establishment of a ‘social mobility strategy’ in 2012 is starting to have real positive and meaningful impact and the sector should be proud of the progress made. However the context provided in the full OFFA agreements published by institutions is often completely neglected when higher education provider’s efforts in widening access is being measured. It is an important part of the bigger picture, as institutions have clearly defined strategies and milestones to measure themselves against as appropriate to their individual circumstances. All institutions are working with primary schools and all are working closely with business. All institutions are accountable for measuring their performance against the milestones they set. This important nuance is lost entirely when metrics are looked at bluntly and without context.

Data collection alone is not going to improve upward social mobility nor can it solely be the responsibility of higher education.

In his book The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Gregory Clark makes the case that despite the extension of the political franchise and the mass introduction of public education facilitated by taxation in England during the 19th century, social mobility today remains at its slow pre-industrial pace. Here we are in 2015 still talking about the slow pace. So why do we even bother?

I would suggest that it will remain difficult to see momentum in upward social mobility without addressing wider issues of inequality – and I am not only talking about race. Upward social mobility depends on the structure of opportunities and we should therefore continue to focus on how such structures allow people to navigate from one position to another within them.

Evidence suggests that gains in attainment for students from BAME backgrounds do not translate to gains in the employment market. A study on some of Britain’s largest longitudinal studies led by Professors Anthony Heath and Yaojun Li looked at 40 years of data to define rates of social mobility through identifying the percentage who moved up or down from the occupational class of their father. 

They found that 43% of white men and 45.6% white women moved up to a higher socio-economic class than their father and that in contrast, first generation black African, Indian and Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups had significantly lower upward mobility rates. Just 34.3% of first generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi men and 27.6% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women moved up from the socio-economic class of their father.

Helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds navigate from one social position to another is not dependent merely on academic ability. We should not overlook the importance of developing self-confidence and awareness. We should provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with skills that will help them to thrive in communities other than their own. As I alluded to before, UK higher education continues to demonstrate a commitment to participation, and many institutions have a heightened focus on retention and attainment. 

Institutions are naturally invested in the destinations of their students. When it comes to graduate destinations, we should not underestimate the role of business. If an increase upward social mobility is going to be achieved we need to eliminate cultural barriers by being transparent about all aspects of recruitment and promotion.

Many successful individuals had humble beginnings and our structures should identify and inspire these when they are young. Give everyone the opportunity to improve. Facilitate the building of networks and well defined mentoring and buddying schemes which cross the social divide. All of this requires investment and is not only the responsibility of higher education institutions to deliver.

I am not advocating for complacency about upward social mobility, but I am asking that we also focus attention to barriers created by social structures. Because without doing so we will continue to read about higher education’s poor, slow and inadequate response to social mobility for decades to come.

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