The Social Mobility University

By Dr. Graeme Atherton –

There is a battle for the soul of higher education in the early 21st century. There are those who want to return the university to the purity of a mid-20th century golden age, and those who want to make it more ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘edgeless’ or ‘borderless’. But there are few voices in academia willing to articulate and advocate the ‘social mobility’ university and this presents a major problem. There are a procession of politicians from across the party spectrum, who want to place higher education (HE) as the engine of social mobility. But is it really geared up to do this and does it even really want to play this role?

You don’t become an academic to raise social mobility

The quote above comes from the English Minister for Higher Education and Skills, David Willetts. He is right.1 The majority of people enter academia primarily because of a research interest in their subject. They also progress in academia on this basis too. Promotion in higher education is based firmly on research output, then teaching. There is no category for advancement based on social mobility impact. This is not to say the majority of those working in HE are not sympathetic to the goal of greater social mobility, however fuzzy it is defined. But it would seldom get in the way of research or teaching.

How social mobility is understood also presents a major challenge. It is associated with the promotion of access to higher education by groups presently under-represented in it, which in England has particular reference to those from lower socio-economic groups. There has been significant progress in this area in the last 20 years and a community of those both inside and outside academia, committed to taking this goal forward, now exists. But the growth of widening participation work as a field has also enabled it to be either annexed off from the core work of higher education institutions, or conversely submerged within the institution. A commitment to social mobility is expressed through work in this area which is usually taken forward by small teams, positioned within the administrative or recruitment functions of the institution. Conversely, it is argued that the commitment has become ‘mainstreamed’, and is best conceived not as what a small team in the institution does but as something the whole institution itself does. This is equally problematic however, as no coherent definition of such mainstreaming exists, nor is there a metric to ascertain when it has occurred or not.

The final major barrier is an unintended consequence of the widening participation agenda. Some access-focused elements of the regulatory regime in England are looked at enviously by some other countries, where access might not even be remotely on the radar of universities. But this has also helped consolidate the pre-existing idea that access work is something universities have to do, rather than want to do. This can clearly be seen in the case of those institutions who admit higher numbers of learners from under-represented groups. They argue with complete justification, that they are doing the ‘heavy lifting’ where access is concerned. But few ever express a desire to admit more. They have ‘done their bit’ and are often more concerned to improve their academic standing so they are not perceived as an ‘access university’.

Building the Social Mobility University (SMU)

If social mobility is ever going to be truly part of the battle for HE’s soul then the mission and purpose of HE is where we should start and end. There is a ‘poverty of the imagination’ where the university is concerned.2 Willets’ observation above, that no-one becomes an academic to raise social mobility, should be challenged head on. Why should this not be a core part of what an academic is and does? The tussle over the soul of HE is as much about what its public role should be. It is entirely appropriate it should be conceived in terms of social mobility (it is at least as preferable as being a handmaiden to economic growth). In practical terms, this would also mean the institution enabling its staff to express a commitment to social mobility and being recognised for it. This means making engagement in social mobility work a compulsory part of what all academics do, from (and including) senior management down. It also means ensuring that staff are given time in their schedules to do this.

The practical expression of the social mobility values should begin with engagement of children at primary level and finish when the students are in the labour market. Research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in 2013 showed that students from non-white ethnic groups and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, even after controlling for prior attainment and institution attended, were still less likely to complete their courses, obtain a first/upper 2:1 degree or to get a graduate job within 6 months than the average student.3 A commitment to social mobility means a whole student lifecycle approach – in HE terms from cradle to grave. It also means confronting some inviolable cultural norms in HE. The disparity in outcomes by social background in compulsory education in England has led to a concerted focus on the needs of learners from lower socio-economic groups, with funding via the ‘pupil premium’ to be spent specifically on these needs. The view in HE in England has always been that when you enter you leave your identity at the door: the way to improve the performance of students from under-represented groups is to improve learning and teaching for all. The social mobility university should revisit this assumption. The HEFCE research shows you do not stop being working class when you enrol in HE. A true SMU should work with their students to develop and pilot specific interventions to support learners from different social backgrounds.

Policymakers can support the SMU by investing their resources carefully. Creating a student premium to replace the student opportunity allocation as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently recommended, would support a more targeted approach to supporting students through HE and into employment.4 This should be coupled with investment in the mission-building that is at the heart of SMU. The best way to do this is to support the professionalisation of social mobility in HE, by seed funding a National Academy committed to providing staff development in social mobility across the student lifecycle. The National Academy would do what HE does best; grow a body of research-based knowledge and practice that can benefit society.

The SMU is not a utopian ideal. Nor is it an especially radical one. It is as valid an identity for HE as the entrepreneurial, borderless or edgeless university and probably more so. The most important word in ‘higher education’ is ‘education’. This is what universities were created to do. Being a SMU is returning universities to the mission of their foundation. But realising this vision requires leadership. As Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford argued in 2012, achieving the changes in HE necessary to address inequality involves ‘the substantial challenge of changing organisational culture’.5 In the war for the soul of HE, social mobility needs its generals. Only those with bravery, vision and imagination need apply.

Dr Graeme Atherton founded and leads both AccessHE in London and the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in England. He is also Visiting Professor in Higher Education & Social Mobility Practice at London Metropolitan University and the Chair of the World Congress on Access to Post-Secondary Education.

  1. Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) (2011) Ron Dearing lecture: Universities and Social Mobility London: BIS
  2. Barnett, R. (2013) “Wanted: New visions of the university.” University World News: 16 March 2013.
  3. HEFCE (2013b) Higher education and beyond: Outcomes from full-time first degree study. Bristol: HEFCE.
  4. Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2013). A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England. London: IPPR.
  5. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (2012). Inequality and higher education: marketplace or social justice? London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

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