History has shown us that higher education can be a social mobility superpower.
Before the pandemic, pupils who attended university after being eligible for free school meals in year 11 were almost four times more likely to be in the highest 20 per cent of earners at 30-years-old than those who did not.
This rises to ten times more likely if they attended one of the four most selective universities in the UK.
Today’s context is more challenging. Watered down catch-up measures have failed to recoup lost learning, with the attainment gap growing and the damaging impact on younger pupils now becoming apparent. In 2022, 275,000 Year 6 pupils in England left primary school without basic maths and English skills – that’s 41 per cent, 50,000 more than 2019.
The mental health impact of successive lockdowns is still emerging, and the rising cost of living is pushing first-generation students towards the exit door. It is in these powerful headwinds that universities must repeat the social mobility feats of the past.
Difficult times call for innovative thinking. Fortunately, answers can be found within.
While student horizons have been broadened in the lecture theatre, socioeconomic diversity in the higher education workforce has flatlined. This is not befitting of institutions where knowledge and ability is the prized possession.
It presents challenges for academics and professionals from working-class backgrounds, who must navigate the cultures of their middle-class dominated peer group; and is alienating for working-class students, who may intuit the idea that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. And, of course, social mobility intersects and can boost other diversity and equality priorities.
We can learn much from admissions about the benefits of recruiting from a more socially diverse talent pool. Yet increasing the number of people from working-class backgrounds who get in is only part of the solution. Good social mobility employers also create equitable pathways to progression and close the Class Pay Gap. Our research confirms that, right now, a pay gap of £5,807 exists between academics from working-class backgrounds and peers from middle-class backgrounds.
This is evidently unfair. Talented people from working-class backgrounds are unfairly shut out of opportunities and, if they somehow manage to unlock the door, they then face a pay gap that holds them back financially.
A regulatory eye
This is not only bad for the ‘marketplace of ideas’, but it will also increasingly pose a reputational risk. Scrutiny on student access and participation is increasing, with a new approach from the Office for Students (OfS) through an equality of opportunity risk register – there are risks presented by workforce inequalities too.
We know from the recent OfS outcomes report that universities have boosted commitments to increasing attainment in schools, and to improving the evaluation of this work. Taking a lead on workplace social mobility is the natural next step for institutions with a rich heritage in widening participation. Disputes over working conditions and pay only add to the urgency to act. Steps to improve recruitment, retention and progression will count for little if the university is not publicly seen as being a good employer.
Why, then, has no higher education institution ever entered the Social Mobility Employer Index?
The Index, as the leading authority on employer-led social mobility, is an assessment and benchmarking tool. It gives employers access to personalised advice on their social mobility strategy. The value of the Index is shown by the return of top employers like KPMG, BBC and PwC who have entered for six consecutive years. Joining these employers would help universities rescue social class from being the forgotten dimension of diversity.
Workplace social mobility can be the next social mobility frontier for universities. Becoming more accessible and inclusive is morally right, good for the recruitment and retention of staff, and will benefit students. Help is available and universities must take advantage of it.
The Social Mobility Employer Index opens for entries in March. I urge all readers to ensure their employer takes on the mantle and strides forward on social mobility once more.