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Social mobility, higher education and the 21st century

Despite widespread recognition that higher levels of education are essential for countries to compete, and the fact that the number of people in higher education is growing, access to higher education continues to be skewed according to socio-economic status. Mary Stuart takes a look at some of the current issues with policies on 'access' and unpicks how and why universities should play a role in social mobility.
This article is more than 10 years old

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

Growing up, I was acutely aware of the importance my family placed on education, despite my parents having left school without qualifications. They told me that education was the way to achieve a better future than they had been able to. The life experiences that I gained during my time of study have had a huge impact on the way I operate as an individual, as a researcher and now as a Vice Chancellor.

The challenge

Despite widespread recognition that higher levels of education are essential for countries to compete, and the fact that the number of people in higher education is growing, access to higher education continues to be skewed according to socio-economic status.

There has been a concerted drive in England in recent years to ensure fair access to university. The government set up the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and in 2012 established a ‘social mobility strategy’; important steps which have been shown to make a difference, increasing the number of state school students admitted into English universities.

However too narrow a focus has been placed on access to higher education as the key to social mobility. Supporters of this focus argue that fair access to a small number of institutions is essential because this is where access is most skewed. And they would be right in lots of ways – Oxbridge continues to have the lowest state school intake in England. But, while fair access is essential if higher education is to promote social mobility, it is not in itself sufficient. And focusing on only a select few universities, while ignoring the opportunities offered by others, will only ever achieve minimal impact.

Access is not enough

The evidence shows that fair access does not necessarily lead to graduate success. Even where access is more evenly distributed there continues to be disparity of outcomes between socio-economic groups of students. For example, 18 months after graduation, graduates from families where the parents work in partly skilled occupations are 30% more likely than others to be in a non-graduate job; and for graduates with parents who are unemployed this risk increases to 80%.

And while 94% of white students had gained ‘successful’ graduate outcomes six months after leaving UK higher education in 2000, this figure was not matched by other ethnic groups with the Black African group having the lowest success rate. Female graduates continue to earn less than their male counterparts, even where they have graduated from the same university, in the same subject and with the same degree classification. Similarly state school graduates with a 2.1 earn, on average, £2,590 per year less than private-school graduates.

These figures suggest that while fair access is essential to social mobility it does not necessarily result in similar ability students getting fair opportunity to move up in the world.

Barriers to success

What employers value

In a civilised society, enabling people to achieve better social and economic outcomes than their parents’ generation is something that we should believe in and support. One of the key barriers to this is ensuring graduates are employment ready. This is important because in education we continue to focus on ‘skills’ but it is actually those emotional intelligence attributes, the social capital, those things that people pick up in a wide variety of contexts, that employers say are the abilities they are really looking for and having difficulty finding.

Extra-curricular activities

Despite the fact that research supports my own experience of learning – that young people tend to develop broader types of skills through being involved in activities outside of the classroom – students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to be able to access these opportunities.

This may be for financial reasons but it may also be for cultural reasons. For example, while Alan Milburn found that for first generation students from lower socio-economic groups achieving graduate success through employment is more important than just getting in to university and so they shy away from extra-curricular activities.


While individual ability is a precursor for social mobility, support in some form is crucial to success. Evidence shows that strong and positive social networks can support educational development in families and communities but where these networks are weak it is harder for the younger generation to gain purchase on their future development.


Successive governments have promoted the idea of individual choice as both a good in itself, because it promotes individual freedom, and as an essential element of market economics, ensuring efficient economic exchanges that support growth and help to pull people out of poverty.

But there continue to exist many constraints and challenges around the idea of individual choice. Policy makers need to understand that the choice of which higher education institution to go to and what to do once there is a choice of lifestyle and a matter of taste, as much as it is about the specific subject a student chooses to study. And social class is a key subtext of that choice. Since choice and taste do not operate in isolation and the choices we make are constrained by the experiences we have had and the social, economic and cultural background that we come from.

This may have implications for social mobility as the government’s social mobility tsar Alan Milburn points out in his recent report, many employers only value degrees from particular types of institutions.

Implications for teaching and learning

Learning and teaching does not happen in a vacuum, it is part of society. We therefore need to understand this broader context. And to understand that different students will make different decisions based on their own context. If we accept that the wider higher education ‘experience’ is vital to the individual’s economic and social success we need to transform the driving factors behind choices and decisions.

A major issue is that those students who come from middle class backgrounds are able to draw on all sorts of extra resources – familial and educational – which enable them to feel like they belong. Bourdieu and Wacquant refer to this alignment between middle-class values and culture and the education system as enabling middle class children to feel ‘like a fish in water’: it is effortless, natural to them; they have been so socialised that they know exactly what the rules of the game are and they are able to effortlessly swim through the challenges life throws at them.

Whereas students from non-traditional backgrounds are not fish in water, they are more like bears. And they work incredibly hard but they are carrying with them experiences that the academy does not recognise and, more importantly, that the world outside does not recognise.

By ignoring the importance of social capital and the barriers to building it up we are creating a false dichotomy in the educational environment – between the formal learning environment and everything else. We talk a lot about how we engage people in the lecture theatre or seminar room, where there are right and wrong answers, rather than about openness and exploration of a topic.

To some extent this is a necessary precondition for socialisation: you have to help people grow into the world in which they live. But we need to recognise that learning does not only happen inside the seminar room. And that it is the patchwork of knowledge that we build up – through interacting with views different to our own, through being in places we are unfamiliar with, and through dealing with unfamiliar situations, that gives individuals the tools to achieve graduate success.

Enabling social mobility is complex. It is as much about desire and imagination as it is real hard work. It is absolutely right and true that throughout business and public life we see examples of individuals using their abilities to achieve personal and professional success. However, alongside hard work and determination certain other conditions are required. Success in upward mobility is conditional on the availability of a range of opportunities, resources and supporters before the individual can make that leap into a different class.

By failing to recognise this we are closing down possibilities to large numbers of students and putting our country’s economic and social success at risk.

Mary Stuart’s recent book is Social Mobility and Higher Education: The life experiences of first generation entrants in higher education.

2 responses to “Social mobility, higher education and the 21st century

  1. I really, really needed to read this tonight. Thank you for giving me faith in the dreams I have for my University.

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