The room where it happens – and who can enter it

David Kernohan is less than impressed with the new orthodoxy about social mobility

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

There’s been a shift in meaning around social mobility, and it sits right at the centre of government policy.

In essence, the old idea was that there was an elite who went to the best schools, the best universities, and then got the best jobs. Social mobility was about ensuring that everyone had access to these opportunities, and that there were no artificial barriers to progression from one to another provided a person had the skills to do so.

A glance around the top flight of business, education, entertainment, and politics suggests that this has not been entirely successful. Although there are prominent examples of success among people who come from non-traditional backgrounds (apparently Sajid Javid’s dad was a bus driver…) there are plenty of more traditional stories of advantage leading inexorably to advantage.

Don’t think about badgers

The recent shift has been to move the goalposts. Rather than inculcating more promising young people into the elite, the new thinking problematises the very notion of “the bottom” and “the top”. It’s John Major’s classless society writ large – a focus on individual goals and aspirations rather than measuring success by the markers of a “good” job and a “good” university. In the new policy environment, becoming a bus driver can be an example of social mobility. And not just literally.

All this has been complicated by conflicting definitions concerning who is disadvantaged and what mobility is. While it is clear that there are multiple ways to suffer deprivation, and that each of these can have an impact on any life goals a person may have, this does cause an issue with setting the targets and policy priorities that four decades of New Public Management have taught ministers are the only way to make change happen. Reason indeed to throw the baby of widening access and participation out with the bathwater of perceived snobbery.

So, as one of Wonkhe’s smarter and more politically aware readers you probably figured out a lot of this by yourself – why go over it now? The answer is a new paper from Policy Exchange, written by Social Mobility Commission chair Katherine Birbalsingh’s deputy chair, Alun Francis. Rethinking social mobility for the levelling up era sees Francis expound on this new orthodoxy with the help of none other than Alexander Hamilton. Everyone’s favourite hip-hop musical lead apparently (normal values of reported Founding Father speech apply) once called for:

a more ample and various field of enterprise

that allowed for a growing economy and work that suited a range of dispositions. Adrian Woolridge’s Aristocracy of Talent is the source of that gem of a quote – and though both Woolridge (“a wiser meritocracy”) and indeed Hamilton (his “Christian meritocracy”) call for more or better meritocracy, it doesn’t appear to stop Francis calling for another direction.

Surgeons on YouTube

Francis defines the problem space as a problem of knowledge – in that our contemporary emphasis on knowledge-about-knowledge is freezing out any sense that people have to learn particular things to do particular roles rather than just be generally well disposed to learning how to do things.

The example cited – and I swear I am not making this up – is a surgeon checking how to perform an unfamiliar procedure on whatever the medical equivalent of YouTube is. This is supposedly a bad thing, because the surgeon may not know how the technical process they are following relates to the wider workings of the body. Now assuming this surgeon is an actual surgeon (who has taken a long course in how the body works alongside specific technical training in the manual skills of surgery) the fact that our imaginary surgeon can check out the current best practice on a rare procedure by watching another expert do it and then perform the operation is testament to the value of the whole knowledge about knowledge thing.

Why would anyone think otherwise? Well, it isn’t clear. All kinds of people do seem to learn all kinds of skills in all kinds of stages of life, and this does draw on a previous understanding. If you are going to argue for knowledge as a kind of magical incantation that delivers the ability to carry out a specified role (and nothing else) it is a tough road – the paper kind of peters out with stuff about differing rates of return (I think he means salary) for graduates, and the signalling effect.

All this comes as something of a surprise when the available evidence appears to suggest that employers are not only happy with “graduate skills”, but are happier with graduate skills than any other level of education. Though there’s always room to expand and reform curricula, the idea that higher education pumps out thousands of graduates who are not welcome in the economy is a largely imaginary (if mystifyingly popular) one.

The virtues of competition?

There is a strong recent history of “parity of esteem” calls to dismantle meritocratic approaches to equality in favour of something else (Willetts, Goodhart…), but it appears to be optional to define what that something else is. Mostly it appears that it is in fact culture that is to blame, and we all need to stop being wrong about the value we accord to various skills and professions. If there is no hierarchy, then we can’t complain when the well to do take all the “good jobs” because there are no “good jobs” in a world with prizes for everyone – none of which addresses the issue that culture is not going to change any time soon.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that in isolation – if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, we have clearly learned that retail workers and logistics staff are of enormous value of society – to the extent that we should start recognising this with pay, and with better terms and conditions. Plastering feels like a great career when you are 18 and vigorous, knocking enough enough lime to do three layers on a whole barn conversion is a different game when you are 55. But turning this into a tool to bash graduates and providers with is both short sighted and evidence free – indeed many of these people may indeed be graduates using their skills in ways that society does not yet fairly recognise.

Here we skate over the governments actual skills policy, which appears to be to replace existing and widely respected level three qualifications with T-levels that contain 75 per cent academic work – enshrining an attainment and aptitude gap even earlier in education than the one around access to higher education that we have worked so hard to address.

Fundamentally, there are graduate jobs and there are graduate skills. Everyone in society deserves the opportunity to acquire one or both if they wish – and there is a hell of a lot of reason to believe that we need to get better at recognising both neither and one-of-two as valid life choices. If Alun Francis wants to campaign for better pay and conditions for care workers and street cleaners I will join him on the barricades – otherwise these intellectual games about esteem are just cover for pulling up the ladders that so many of us from all kinds of backgrounds have benefited from.

3 responses to “The room where it happens – and who can enter it

  1. “Everyone in society deserves the opportunity to acquire one or both if they wish”

    I believe they have the opportunity, but many lack the mental ability at 18 (a nominal age, my eldest started Uni at 16) to ‘deal with life’ and undertake serious study, as evidenced by the over-valuation of ‘student experience’ ratings which always seem to revolve around student social life and the amount of provided course material without any self actuated study. Which is something many state educated students have real issues with having been spoon fed up to this point, those that have the ability to adapt do reasonably well, but too many continue to receive unearned praise and prizes from tutors as the focus is on ‘customer satisfaction’ and the associated ‘student experience’ ratings.

    Sitting through our youngest’s graduation it became clear that ‘box ticking’ and ‘box tickers’ who didn’t actually do much study got higher grades and special awards on some courses than those who had the focus and studied hard, with some graduates asking how and why X who ticked several ‘intersectional’ boxes, never attended lectures and was almost continually stoned/drunk got a 1st even though they even didn’t sit the final exam and was described by several as ‘thick as’.

    These cases, and the resulting devaluation of degree’s may mean more attending and graduating, tick that box, but employers being far more selective about which University and what degree they will accept. As my youngest discovered when applying to HMG, his University had slipped so far down the acceptability for the role table even though he passed all the aptitude tests he wouldn’t be acceptable as a ‘graduate entrant’.

    The big danger isn’t going to come from ‘equality of opportunity’ as some have posited, which we broadly already have and some very good non-traditional students as a result, but the US style ‘equity of outcome’ now starting to rear it’s ugly head with all its box ticking special considerations.

    I consider myself lucky working in a world class research department that has no undergrads and only takes the top 1% of the top 1% of world wide of suitably specialised graduates to interview, a small number are accepted, our annual intake is mainly from overseas as very very few UK grads are up to our standards, with fewer year on year being good enough no matter how many more are going to Uni and graduating. HESA stats on grading 1st in 1995 7% v 2015 22%, 2:1 1995 40% v 2015 50% certainly seem to indicate ‘grade inflation’ of some sort, I wonder if the Guardian will run another piece ten years on from this: https://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2012/jan/12/first-class-degrees-concern

  2. I don’t think “good” jobs exist in the way this article describes, it is very much a subjective statement. A “good” job to me is one that pays well, for example a plumbers can earn £120 an hour which is nearly double what an NHS surgeon is paid and they usually keep better hours and can qualify quicker, so in my opinion I would say a plumber has a “better” job than a doctor. A “good” job to someone else could be one that gives them fulfilment and purpose, in which a surgeon would probably be a better fit.
    The same goes for a University, a “good” one for me would be close to home and small enough that I don’t get lost in the crowd. Again, that might not appeal to everyone. We need to just stop putting University names on CVs, a degree is a degree regardless of where it is from and if it isn’t then we need better regulating bodies!! The only difference between Universities should be location, student experience and course choice.

  3. “I consider myself lucky working in a world class research department that has no undergrads and only takes the top 1% of the top 1% of world wide of suitably specialised graduate … very few UK grads are up to our standards”

    John – You consider yourself lucky, but a lot of people reading this will consider you to be a monumental snob. I really don’t know what you’re trying to achieve with this comment. Bizarre.

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