Diversity in higher education and social mobility

By Matt Grist and Julia Margo –

Let us introduce you to Asa (not her real name). We met Asa at a Community College in London, England. Asa was a ‘learning advocate’, someone who represents the college to external visitors like us, and who observes lessons, carries out research and advocates on behalf of students to the college’s senior staff. Asa was a bright, focussed young woman. And she wanted to go to university.

What she wanted to study was radiography. She told us how her mother had died of cancer when she was nine years-old, and how her best friend had died of leukaemia two years ago. She wanted to study radiography to help people like her mother and her friend. And she wanted to study near to her home so that she could continue to live with her family. She also wanted to get her degree as quickly as possible so she could enter the workplace.

As debates take place around tuition fees and the role of universities in promoting social mobility, we might ask ourselves whether higher education serves people like Asa well? The answer seems to be an overwhelming no. Not only have university places—as is well documented now—been captured on the whole by the middle classes,1 but the very idea of what it means to participate in higher education has become a middle class shibboleth. The idea goes something like this: leave home and explore yourself through study, extra-curricular activities and revelry; meet a circle of friends with whom you’ll make the transition into stable, well-rewarded and connected professional careers; get drunk with those university friends and possibly marry one of them.

This vision is not one that appealed to Asa, and it does not appeal to many other young people, especially those forced to grow up a little faster than their more affluent peers. Asa does not need to make the transition to adulthood through an elongated finishing school with occasional bouts of studying in between, nor does she need to explore herself. She knows who she is and she knows what she wants to do. She simply needs a higher education system and a labour market that enables her to do it.

There are three policy ideas that would make the higher education system better serve young people like Asa in the future: the liberalisation of degree-awarding institutions; more variety in the length of university degrees; and employment regulations that outlaw unnecessary discrimination on the basis of levels of educational attainment. Now, briefly, to each of these in turn.

At the moment in the UK, it takes an act of Parliament or a Royal Charter to visit degree-awarding powers on a new institution. This level of oversight might at first seem unnecessarily draconian, but there is reason to it. Universities are guardians of learning and culture, and their ‘brand’ should not be damaged by too many unwarranted entrants into the market. However, some more flexibility could be introduced into the system such that Further Education (FE) colleges could be allowed to carry out teaching and assessment towards degrees under patronage from a local university. This already happens to some extent with foundation degrees through franchising and accreditation arrangements, and there is no reason in principle why it should not be extended to full degrees, as long as standards are maintained through all the usual channels, most notably the use of external examiners. The marker of higher education is not physical location in a university, but studying something to a certain level of depth and breadth, and under one’s own steam, so that a degree signals a particular standard of education.

As for more variety in the length of degrees, in the USA and Canada it is common for students to finish degrees a year or so quicker than is standard by taking summer classes (often taught by PhD students or visiting academics). In the UK, the university of Buckingham (a private university), offers degrees that can be finished in two years. These are not just ‘vocational’ degrees like the one Asa wants to take, but arts and humanities degrees too. The brevity of study is achieved through studying all year round, with shorter holidays. No less material need be covered since the average university ‘year’ in the UK is one hundred days, leaving plenty of scope for gains in efficiency.

The main stumbling block to expanding the offer of shorter degrees is the culture of universities—long holidays and sabbaticals for academics to carry out research. But this culture is itself damaging since it homogenises academics into researcher/teacher hybrids. Some are suited to this role but not all. The result is not just the bog-standard length of a degree, but also many researchers who teach badly and many teachers who carry out questionable research. All this produces a massive inefficiency in the system. With liberalised degree-awarding institutions, based on a partnership model, there would be jobs for those academics better suited to teaching (and doing it all year round), as well as for those better at research, who would be freed up to do just that, giving less frequent lectures. This division of labour would have to be based on academic merit and would meet with some resistance from the academic community. But it would only be recognising differences in talent that already exist and it would increase the quality of universities (better teaching, better research), as well as creating efficiency gains.

Finally, to the supply-side issue of legislating against unnecessary demands for possession of qualifications. It seems odd to claim more regulation could free up people’s ability to gain wages for their labour. But there is a wealth of evidence now that the UK is over-educating for many jobs (estimates range between a quarter and a third of the workforce being over-educated).2 All that we suggest here is that it be possible for an applicant to question at tribunal the legitimacy of making demands for qualifications when advertising jobs. If, for example, an applicant challenged a chartered accountancy firm for demanding chartered accountant exams, then this would cut little ice at a tribunal. But if a local council is advertising a clerical post and demands a university degree (which does happen), then applicants should be able to go to tribunal to demand the employer display evidence of why such a qualification is necessary. In this case, the employer would be on much shakier ground. For people like Asa, who might consider a foundation degree plus a real willingness to learn on the job plenty good enough to become a radiographer, an employer might find it difficult to justify demanding a full degree. In reality, of course, regulations of this kind would lead to lots of job applications simply being reworded with phrases like ‘a degree is desirable’ but this shift in tone would be no small victory against pointless over-education.

With these policy reforms in place, Asa would have much more choice of local providers of a full degree; could get her degree in a shorter time, saving considerable costs and satisfying her desire to enter the labour market as soon as possible; and would be less-likely to be forced to over-educate herself to pursue her chosen career.

What we need to ask ourselves is why higher education systems and labour markets don’t serve people like Asa as well as they could? The argument that by taking a shorter more local degree Asa is entering the lesser part of a ‘two-tier’ system doesn’t hold water. If Asa wanted to take a longer degree or leave home she could; the point is she doesn’t. Are we to ascribe, patronisingly, false consciousness to her? Or admit that we have suffused our idea of a university education with notions of the rites of passage of the middle classes? With more diversity in the university sector and a labour market less insistent on over-education, more people would have more options for social mobility than they currently have. That’s liberal politics spreading opportunity, not regressive elitism.

Dr Matt Grist is a Senior Researcher on the Family and Society Programme at Demos. His expert areas include education (including vocational education), capabilities, social mobility, youth policy and behaviour change.

Julia Margo is Deputy Director at Demos. Julia is a regular commentator in the international and national press. She also writes for national, online and specialist press and is an experienced chair and public speaker on a wide range of subjects.

Demos is a think-tank focused on power and politics. Our unique approach challenges the traditional, ‘ivory tower’ model of policymaking by giving a voice to people and communities. We work together with the groups and individuals who are the focus of our research, including them in citizens’ juries, deliberative workshops, focus groups and ethnographic research.

  1. In 1960 the percentage of first year undergraduates from middle-class backgrounds was 74%, it was exactly the same in 1999 even though the size of the yearly cohort had increased massively. See Wolf, Alison: Does Education Matter, Penguin, 2002.
  2. See Chevalier, A. and Lindley, J. (2009) Over-education and the Skills of UK graduates Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 172.2

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