'Make sure you go to university, you'll earn on average a £100,000 more than those who don't'. I remember those exact words being repeated by teachers, careers advisors and by many other well meaning individuals who thought that a good degree would be our magic ticket to a brighter and more prosperous future. Fast forward a decade later and many of those sitting in those school assemblies with me, who listened to that very advice, feel as though they have been betrayed. Saddled with debt and often working long hours in non-graduate jobs, I'm often asked by some of my friends if they could've done without their degrees, working as they currently are as security guards, administrative assistants, or other non-graduate roles.
It's a mood that is common not only amongst individuals from working class communities like mine but also across the country, and is a sign of a much wider failure amongst politicians of all stripes to tackle what has become the holy grail of public policy, social mobility. The last week alone has served as a harsh reminder about how unequal a country Britain has become, in spite of all the talk from yet another Prime Minister about 'building a country that works for everyone'.
Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, speaking at a conference on social mobility, shared findings that showed low-ability youngsters from wealthy families going on to earn more money than their more gifted, poorer counterparts. If you're a bright kid from a poor household the message was loud and clear, that your background will still determine how far you will get in life. The bad news didn't just stop there however, with the head of the Social Mobility Commission, Alan Milburn, claiming that first time homeowners have never been more dependent on the 'Bank of Mum and Dad' or inherited money to give them that first step on the housing ladder.
Yet for all the talk and agonising from politicians about how more must be done to reverse the shameful position Britain finds itself on social mobility tables in comparison to other countries, it's difficult to conclude that politicians are paying anything more than mere lip service to the idea. The fact that in 21st century Britain George Osborne can be appointed as editor of the Evening Standard with no real experience or qualifications in journalism speaks volumes. What message does it send out to those from underrepresented backgrounds who are told to work as twice as hard and secure unpaid internships to achieve a well paid job in journalism? Upon hearing the news of his appointment, the immediate question that came to mind was, could someone from a minority or working class background have an editorship of a major newspaper tossed into their lap as easily? Even if they found themselves to be highly qualified, the answer is probably not. Yet politicians still aim to sell the myth that your own hard work alone will determine how far you get.
What the appointment of Osborne showed was that for all the talk and grand announcements, what still matters is the ability of those from well off backgrounds not only to utilise their connections and wealth for their personal benefit, but also to insulate themselves and ensure that they stay at the top. If social mobility is to improve it requires a dismantling of the policies and barriers that enable those from wealthy backgrounds to maintain their positions at the top.
For a start we could get rid of unpaid internships, a means through which parents from wealthy backgrounds can afford to help their children secure favourable advantages. How a new graduate who doesn't live in or within immediate reach of London can work for free or even on the minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities in the world is beyond comprehension. Ironically the government blocked an attempt to ban unpaid internships only last year.
A lot more must also be done to achieve parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications. Student's mustn't feel that achieving a university degree is something they have to do, even if their talents are best utilised elsewhere.
The inconsistencies and double standards in the approach of successive governments towards social mobility is now glaringly obvious. It's about time politicians apologised for letting down entire generations. At a time when political leaders are keen to talk about the importance of unity and social cohesion, addressing the injustice of inequality for those from disadvantaged backgrounds is a key step in that journey.