For those of us dedicated to increasing social mobility and opportunities for disadvantaged young people, the Government’s recent higher education policy announcements are starting to raise both hackles and concerns.
In a recent speech to launch the National Educational Opportunities Network (NEON)’s new Uni4me service, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan spoke of the need to focus on “true social mobility”, which she glossed as
getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path”.
She went on to imply that in contrast, “false” social mobility consists of focusing only on getting more people into university.
Donelan continued to season this reheated policy soup with a now-traditional sideswipe at “poor value” degrees, “popular sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market”, a pinch of uncritical meritocracy in which “every person can rise to the position that their talents and hard work allows” and, more troublingly, an implicit linkage between “dumbing down” and the admission of disadvantaged students; “let’s be clear – we help disadvantaged students by driving up standards, not by levelling down”.
More trouble to come
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s recent announcement of plans to abandon Tony Blair’s 1999 target of 50% of young people going into higher education (actually achieved in 2017-18), suggests that rather than being merely a throw-away speech designed to appeal to core voters unlikely to be attending the NEON event, a troubling policy posture is taking shape. It is one that promises a bumpy ride for both HE and social mobility over the coming months. Clearly the sector will be delighted to see even more uncertainty and disruption being tossed into the post-Covid mix.
Nonetheless, some of the underlying arguments for this shift may have merit. It is hard to argue against the position that university is not always the best option for every young person or that FE, apprenticeships or employment should be viewed as equally important and socially-valued destinations and resourced accordingly.
Indeed, this is exactly why the Villiers Park Education Trust is launching a new programme, this September. The Future Leaders programme is explicitly designed to support disadvantaged young people in thinking deeply about their purpose and values, and how these values can inform their ideas about the future they want. We can then give them the resources they need to create and follow detailed roadmaps of the steps they need to achieve their ambitions, whether these are to go straight into employment, apprenticeships, further or higher education, or to become effective activists or agents for social change and make the world a better place.
Sometimes additional scaffolding and support are required if disadvantaged young people are to make the most of their “talents and hard work” and catch up with their more advantaged peers – for whom the pathway is already worn smooth, and any barriers removed in advance by their access to resources, social networks, familial advice and guidance and years of expensive educational preparation.
Concealed within Donelan and Williamson’s apparent enthusiasm for a more egalitarian post-16 educational landscape is a subtle sidestep away from mass higher education and a gradual sidle towards a more elite system in which an uninterrogated meritocracy is turned against the very young people who stand most to benefit from higher education. Whether intentionally or not, Michelle Donelan’s recent suggestion that ‘doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university, and that it is more important to focus on the ‘best interests’ of individual students would result in a cloaking of this structural shift.
Admittedly, there are many dangers in pursuing a data-led approach to achieving fair access (for example data determinism, introducing perverse incentives, the use of inappropriate proxy measure) however, this suggestion that we should deliberately not attempt to map and understand inequalities in HE appears to draw on a parallel logic to Donald Trump’s suggestion that the US was seeing more virus cases simply because it was doing too much testing.
Time for integration
Not measuring social mobility doesn’t mean that you’ve somehow solved it. It might mean, however, that social immobility becomes less obvious and policy makers less accountable.
So; a yes, absolutely, to the idea of complete parity and equivalence between the different post-16 routes available to young people and to the principle that young people themselves are best placed to determine what works best for them. But let’s not let these positive steps serve as cover for a policy leading ultimately to the reduction of choices and opportunities for disadvantaged young people and the return of an elite HE system that serves merely to reinforce and entrench existing social immobility.
From this perspective, “true’”social mobility may merely replace one false form of social mobility with another. Rather than invoking a series of false oppositions that play off one set of post-16 options against another, maybe now is the time to seize the policy momentum and properly consider the whole post-16 landscape in the round.