By Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor, University of Sheffield
Politicians talk a lot about opportunity and social mobility. Who could argue with that?
If we want a real meritocracy, we know we have a long way to go. Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world. Over half of our top doctors, FTSE-100 chief execs, senior journalists and 70 per cent of High Court judges went to private schools.
Things are getting worse. While over 50 per cent of young people now go on to university, young people from less well-off families still have less favourable prospects than their parents or even their grandparents.
Both Labour and the Conservatives hoped the graduation picture on the walls of working class homes would guarantee that a new generation would be upwardly mobile. If anything, the window of opportunity seems to be closing and an increasing number of the first-to-go-to-university are at heightened risk of moving down the economic and social ladder.
Across the board, widening access to higher education has not had the desired effect. Universities appear to be consolidating social immobility, rather than overcoming it.
How did it happen? We shouldn’t be surprised at the answer. Social mobility has never been a question of education alone.
“The doors of the great universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, are open to all – just like the doors of the Ritz” It is not just a degree that gets a young person access to the opportunities they crave. The doors of the great universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, are open to all – just like the doors of the Ritz hotel. But, just like the Ritz, you need a full bank account to stay inside.
Yet why should it be true that inequality is increasing rather than decreasing? Surely we managed to provide social mobility in the past? Think of the working class boys and girls made good, the ones who became members of the professions, of the Cabinet – or who, like me, became vice-chancellors. Why is it less likely now?
Some people think that it was grammar schools that made a real difference. They surely played a role, but only because there were white-collar jobs for people to fill on leaving school. This was when few went to university.
Neither my father nor my father-in-law went to university but there were good jobs in the manufacturing industries where their grammar school and technical college education were just right.
Social mobility – the chance for anyone prepared to work hard to get on and achieve beyond what was expected – depends on education and opportunity. Education alone can produce wasted money and frustrated graduates.
No matter its other virtues, education alone cannot make the jobs. By itself, a degree will not give you a pad in London so you can work there, or pay your tube fare to the job which will open up your dream. It will not give you an internship arranged by a family friend.
“No matter its other virtues, education alone cannot make the jobs. By itself, a degree will not give you a pad in London so you can work there” It shouldn’t surprise us that, when opportunities are limited, families use every asset they have to ensure it is their children who prosper.
As the Oxford sociologist John Goldthorpe says, “Parents in more advantaged class positions will respond to any expansion or reform of the educational system by using their own superior resources – economic, cultural and social – to whatever extent it takes to help their children retain a competitive edge in the system.”
It doesn’t take a sociologist to realise who loses out in this scenario.
So why do politicians still hold out this dream of social mobility, by aiming to include ever-greater numbers in higher education?
To some it is simply the principle that entrenched privilege is wrong, and this is hard to disagree with.
Others like the idea that they got on because of their personal merit, that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and if others were only made of sterner stuff, they would do the same. The idea that social mobility depends on personal drive is a tempting one for politicians, but, for too many of them, their background makes this difficult to believe.
In reality, the purpose of increasing participation in higher education is to ensure that universities take up the responsibility of giving graduates the particular skills they need in life.
Are universities consolidating social immobility? Credit: Alamy I don’t want to mislead people, or be accused of mis-selling. I am wary of saying that our only task is to deliver social mobility. Before graduates enter a world of uncertain opportunities and a flatter economy, we need to remind them that we can only provide the right skills.
One of the conclusions reached by the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report released on Wednesday is that those who studied degrees with lower entry requirements are worse off than those without any university education.
Fortunately the experience of many graduates differs from this.
Those who participate in higher vocational education graduate without debt and with the employers who funded their degrees waiting to take them on full time. They can even go on to higher degrees.
“I believe in education, but it must be tied to real opportunity. Education alone is not enough, and we should not impose undue pressures on it” I believe in education, but it must be tied to real opportunity. Education alone is not enough, and we should not impose undue pressures on it. The most successful higher vocational degrees and further education colleges are built on the principle that they will train people to fill jobs that are already there.
To politicians I would give a warning: making a market of higher education for students is retrograde. The real effect of the price of a university course, and the debt for less well off students, sets in and lasts after the course, when they are trying to get a place to live near a job – the best of these often being in London.
With the growth of the Northern Powerhouse, I hope that our capacity to deliver advanced vocational degrees can increase, but that depends on the jobs provided by the manufacturing and industrial sectors.
It depends on there being opportunities for graduates, wherever they have grown up.