David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Whitehall speechwriters excel at taking commonplace observations, shoddily constructed straw men, and inappropriately vague invective and constructing the kind of tight ten minutes that gets clipped down to seven seconds on local radio news.

The gods of public policy granted us two absolute gifts of that nature this morning – Katharine Birbalsingh’s headline-grabbing intervention on aiming for the next rung rather than the stars (an “inaugural address” for somebody in post since 2021), and Michelle Donelan’s selection box of quality and standards apocalypticism mysteriously used to back up Edward Peck’s appointment as Student Support Champion.

Strictly social mobility

Let’s turn to the actual Chair of the actual Social Mobility Commission (and her deputy Alun Francis, who rocked up to plug last year’s paper). Oxford graduate Birbalsingh has been blessed with the staggering insight that some people don’t do higher learning, and maybe social mobility shouldn’t just be about “long upward mobility”.

Have you ever considered such a thing? Is your mind comprehensively blown? It’s the “Dick Whittington” model, apparently – and as a responsible journalist I shall invite you to write your own jokes – which gives Birbalsingh the chance to recount the plot of that particular pantomime in some detail, replacing the cat with a high quality qualification. Whittington – again, I can’t believe I heard this or am writing it – became Mayor of London, and graduates today go to London to get well-paid work (the mayorality having been somehow stripped of its former lustre by one recent incumbent, perhaps).

She then moved on to “the metaphor of the ladder”, which may in fact be from Jack and the Beanstalk. Oh no, it isn’t.

It’s behind you

The framing of this speech was as a riposte to a research orthodoxy clearly too discredited to actually bother citing. You’d have to wilfully misread a great deal of research to think that widening access has ever been only about getting poor kids to Oxbridge, as the last 20 years or orthodoxy is a lot closer to the kind of individual goal-based personalised approach that in her more lucid moments Birbalsingh advocates for.

Looking for intellectual consistency is probably a mistake here – in nearly the same breath as a call for what I shall characterise as a refined calculus of value when it comes to life outcomes and a need to recognise all kinds of talents beyond the cognitive (basically we should hold all kind of work in esteem – a point I agree with) comes a call to disaggregate what I assume are SOC codes to see smaller jumps up the social mobility ladder. Katharine – who tells us that she “doesn’t want to be a lawyer” (later adding that she also doesn’t want to be Prime Minister) – feels we should be able to see smaller movements in social mobility more easily with more categories, and that these small movements are important to recognise and celebrate. As we currently do.

The parts of these ideas that were dangerous rather than merely entertaining should give us pause, however. Birbalsingh rails against the idea of a kind of Calvinist binary – where those who are structurally disadvantaged will have to deal with this disadvantage for their whole life, while those who do not will have to deal with this disadvantage – without once conceding that it might be true. And then proceeds to talk about the impact of place on life choices.

“Agency” – the ability of a person to “change their stars” – is the riposte to the “elite” pathways that somehow now encompass around 50 per cent of some people. The idea that people should transcend their background to get to where they want is far from a new one – indeed there are many who have done the hard yards in working to remove the structural boundaries that prevent this from happening.

As some have suggested the headline she wanted – the Telegraph’s “Working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxbridge, social mobility tsar to say” – implies it is easy to slim all this down to a central message that is closer to that same neo-Calvinism, the idea that because higher study (of any sort) may not be “for” certain groups of people we should stop working to remove the barriers that prevent so many getting there. Or maybe less people in POLAR4 quintile 1 want to go to university, and that is the natural order of things? Feels a bit like predestination to me.

Exceptionalism is so fragile

On to Michelle Donelan’s efforts at the HEPI conference now – and a blizzard of well-practised words about low quality courses and the “getting in, not getting on” dangers. This represents the very best kind of sector folk daemon, in that these courses could be anywhere, and only identifiable a couple of years later on whatever outcomes Tableau dashboard OfS knocks up. Makes you anxious, doesn’t it? – and it must be worse for students.

Anyway, her set piece announcement was the appointment of one of our smarter vice chancellors, Edward Peck at Nottingham Trent University, to the newly-created role of Student Support Champion. The parameters of this role were vague, but possibly have something to do with learner analytics – a potentially useful tool in understanding certain parameters of student behaviour already widely in use by the sector. Of course, HEFCW actually provided funding and access to expertise (at Jisc) for Welsh universities to engage with this in 2021, but having a VC ring you up might help too.

So much of what has been done in the past to improve and modernise higher education has failed to grasp the central question of what is higher education for.

laments Donelan. “Meaningful higher education”, it turns out, is about “filling skills gaps up and down the country” – just in case you needed a reminder of that. The minister parlays the already announced (and now allocated) OfS recurrent and capital funding into an investment in “high quality teaching” (surely high cost teaching?). This is the stuff that will allow UK higher education’s “brilliant but fragile” title as “world class” to be retained.

What to make of it all

Really, we’re flailing. It does not give me pleasure that I’m writing about speeches by two women here, that’s just the way the government grid and my policy interests have intersected this morning. You could steep any two government-endorsed keynote addresses and come up with a similarly disappointing brew.

It’s exasperating because there is smart policy thinking going on in this space – the OfS reemphasis on schools and (all) universities working together to scaffold aspiration displays a nuance and maturity that I respect (although I’d rather it wasn’t done to the exclusion of other, excellent, access and participation work). There is some stellar research out there about learning analytics and their limitations (some of it more than a decade old). And the literature on the purpose of higher education extends back to at least Humboldt and Newman through to a thriving and diverse discourse today (Sarah Goldrick-Rab and Cameron Neylon would be just two I would cite).

If we’re focusing on what Birbalsingh might call “knowledge-rich content” then we wouldn’t be looking at either of these speeches. Which is a shame, frankly. And a shame that is repeated on topics far beyond these.


I’ve since spotted Ms Birbalsingh’s foreword to the STEPMaths Oxbridge Guides Book 1: The Oxbridge Formula (there was never a book 2). It’s quite the eye-opener. Here’s a choice paragraph:

(The Oxbridge Formula, if you are interested, is apparently: “Chance of Oxbridge Success = P(a, pa, po) + T(a, pa, po) + I(a, pa, po)”)

6 responses to “Two speeches, one morning

  1. More and more the govt is not even really trying to hide it’s agenda – the poor should know their place.

  2. I’d be a bit less sneering and dismissive of your critics. Kathryn Birbalsingh has done a great deal to promote social mobility – directly through her school, and indirectly through challenging liberal education models that patronise working class kids. You only have to look at the results, or ask the parents. Can you say the same for the burgeoning university bureaucracies ably represented by Wonkhe ?

    1. We at least managed to spell her name right, Jim!

      And yes – though we don’t represent any “burgeoning university bureaucracies” directly I’m willing to point to substantial statistically rigorous data showing the way in which 20+ of concerted action to widen access and participation has done enormous amounts for the cause of social mobility – often encouraging universities and sector bodies to face disturbing truths about the way structural disadvantage keeps bright young people from non-traditional backgrounds from success however we define it.

    2. Thank you, Jim, for pointing out the sneering and dismissive writing-style of the Wonkhe team. It seems to be a frustratingly consistent theme within this media outlet, often undermining what could be well-articulated and profound insights. I would love to see this air of arrogance left behind.

  3. As i see it Jim, burgeoning university bureaucracies are a direct result of Government policies and a desire to control; i think what we now see is a government that is more dependent on those that did not go to University for support and so is attacking the sector in everyway it can.

  4. Birbalsingh refers to the folklore version of Dick Whittington. The story that he was from a humble back Lancashire is an invention from an early pantomime. In truth, Dick Whittington was born into the gentry in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean. The younger son of a wealthy MP, he would not inherit his father’s title and estate and instead sought his fortune by learning the trade of a cloth merchant in London.

Leave a Reply