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Social Mobility, the very idea

‘Social mobility’ is now the central trope in the public discussion of university tuition fees and the guiding principle of HE policy. Given that social mobility is only a possible side effect of a university education not its primary purpose; we are entitled to ask how we arrived at this confusing situation in which the tail seems to be wagging the dog.
This article is more than 11 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

‘Social Mobility’ is a complicated thing. I first remember it entering the UK political lexicon, along with ‘fairness,’ as one of the off the shelf policy solutions trailed in the years before the 2010 election. Despite superficial appearances ‘social mobility’ and ‘fairness’ are not synonyms for ‘social inequality’ and ‘justice’.

As Nick Clegg correctly stated in a recent, under-reported, speech to the Bridge Group (a ‘social mobility charity’ that works to encourage under-represented groups into universities, 17.05.11) social mobility is not an alibi for social inequality. What he did not say is that they are in fact worlds apart in intention and consequence; the distance between the two sets of terms tells us something profound about the world we live in today and our current political class. In particular ‘social mobility’ is now the central trope in the public discussion of university tuition fees and the guiding principle of HE policy. Given that social mobility is only a possible side effect of a university education not its primary purpose; we are entitled to ask how we arrived at this confusing situation in which the tail seems to be wagging the dog.

The value of ‘social mobility’ is not in any way simple. Social mobility is about a person moving from one social class into another either by dint of education or as a consequence of wealth. Social mobility does nothing to challenge or correct the inequities that create those social divisions in the first place. It is quite possible to be born on the wrong sides of the tracks and to make it all the way to Oxbridge and the Bar Council, or even the Houses of Parliament, only then to distain the lower orders. Social mobility is an essentially conservative concept, which is about augmenting the present system with new blood without affecting the status quo. Much of the implicit arguments around tuition fees and access to universities have been based on this unacknowledged assumption. ‘Access’ in these terms is about saving children from their social origins by offering them the chance to be ‘like us’, attend a ‘good university’ and to join the productive middle classes. ‘Fairness’ in this context means everyone’s inalienable right to reaffirm inequality.

When this government talk about ‘access to higher education’ they mean access to ‘elite universities’, and so to the professions, for bright ‘grammar school’ kids. ‘Elite’ in this sense means ‘socially elite’ much more than ‘academically elite’, where the value of studying at such places is as much about access to a peer group cohort than it is about what is actually studied. Assuredly, they are not talking about the widening participation driven by post-1992s through the mass education of first timers, second chancers, and significant numbers of black and ethnic minority students. Indeed, current government policy of contraction in higher education simultaneously invokes a social mobility agenda, while in a perfect kettle logic, dismisses the very institutions delivering mass access as unworthy of the name of a ‘university’ and their students as unable to benefit from a university education in the first place. Rather than support the kind of gear shift on a mass scale that would begin to leverage social inequality affecting whole class and ethnic groups, the government has decided instead to funnel these students towards the avaricious arms of the Apollo Group and other for-profit providers offering cheap but worthless educational experiences.

Access to tertiary education ought to be a democratic right to all who are qualified to benefit from it. The promise of access is the promise of enlightenment, not the promise of a well-paid job: neither Alan Sugar nor Wayne Rooney has a university degree. The emphasis placed upon ‘social mobility’ by HE policy makers is a direct consequence of the logic that seeks to quantify the value of a degree strictly in terms of financial gain for the graduate not the transformation of the self.  Nothing I have said here is for one minute intended to dismiss the need for social mobility rather it is necessary to point out that it is not a natural or essential consequence of university study.  Universities will suffer the wrath of disgruntled graduates and politicians if they persist in the line that it is.  Global macro-economic transformations are displacing the familiar narrative of the Anglo-American graduate experience and will result in graduates of western universities increasingly unable to find graduate-level employment.   The backlash on employability and broken promises is already beginning.  British universities may well learn that it is better not to promise what it is not in your power to deliver.

While the levels of debt proposed for future graduates by Lord Browne and the Coalition government (compounded by high levels of graduate unemployment and under-employment) may put a fair number of potential students off university entry in 2012, in truth this will not be what puts a curb on social mobility in the UK. Rather, the life choice of whether to attend a university or not will have been determined long before the moment of post-18 education. It will have been set by experiences of secondary education, primary education and in particular by formative early years. This is why, although the proposed fees and loans regime for universities is a profound injustice visited upon future students by their elders, the Coalition’s decisions to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance, Aim Higher and the Sure Start scheme are far worse crimes against the very social mobility they wish to promote. The decimation of FE colleges and the further selective stratification of secondary education will do more to arrest social mobility than the stressful choice of qualified 18 year olds to attend university or not.

No western politician today seems willing to defend unconditionally the idea of the welfare state, or the promise of enlightenment for all. The consequence of this has been the creation of an elite plutocracy growing ever richer, increasingly convinced that it should not have to pay for institutions that hold up the rest of society. Economists and sociologists have extensively recorded the radical disparity in wealth distribution between the top percentiles of American citizens and the rest of the nation (estimates vary but generally agree that the top 1% owns 40% of the wealth, the top 10% owns 80% of the wealth). This situation is social injustice in the raw. It is unfortunately held up by the myth of social mobility in which it is a commonly held view that low taxes should be maintained for the elite because one day you too might be like them and will want to hold on to all the money as well. In the UK the argument goes that given the other demands on the public purse the state cannot possibly afford the mass entry higher education system that global competiveness demands, therefore the cost should be passed onto graduates not derived from a greater tax burden on corporations and wealthy individuals. Tuition fees are the mechanism by which the UK’s own growing plutocracy evades its responsibility to the enlightenment promise. The narrative of social mobility is the political fig leaf that absolves their guilt.

This article originally appeared in Research Fortnight in July 2011. It is reproduced here with permission of the author.

3 responses to “Social Mobility, the very idea

  1. ‘Shibboleths and social mobility
    October 11, 2012 7:54 pm by Chris Cook
    John Goldthorpe, a pioneer and leader in sociology, is always worth reading. This week, he has written a piece that delivers a kicking to assumptions in Whitehall, Westminster and Fleet Street. But it also poses a significant challenge to organisations like TeachFirst . . ‘

    links to:

    ‘John H. Goldthorpe Oxford Institute of Social Policy and Nuffield College, University of Oxford
    Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility in Britain: The Entry of the Economists, the Confusion of Politicians and the Limits of Educational Policy’

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