The Debate on Social Mobility Needs a New Focus

15/05/2014 15:22 BST | Updated 15/07/2014 10:59 BST

The debate on social mobility and higher education in the UK has been preoccupied with opportunities for the few, not the many. In a new study we have found that this is largely because of an outdated perspective on what makes a 'good' university. In fact, the world is changing fast and we need to drag the discourse about university education out of the 1970s if we are to support the aspirations of all of society.

Higher education is a critical engine of social mobility. The expansion of the UK's higher education sector since the late 1950s has created huge opportunities for large numbers of people and supported a positive transformation of society. The added value delivered by universities, such as Alliance universities, which accept students from a diverse range of backgrounds and achieve some of the highest graduate employment rates, is a great success story. Through transforming the lives of the many, not the few, these universities are making a huge contribution to social mobility in the UK as well as the economy.

However, the debate on social mobility and higher education has been focused elsewhere. There has been too much emphasis on access to higher education, with relatively little focus on access to employment beyond university. Furthermore, the focus on access has been very narrowly defined in relation to a small number of universities, an emphasis that fails to recognise outstanding courses that exist right across the higher education sector. At the narrowest definition this constitutes just 13 universities in the UK which take only 12% of full-time and 4% of part-time undergraduate students every year, necessarily impacting very small numbers of people within our population as a whole. This small number of universities were established between the 12th and early 20th centuries and this list does not include the vast majority of universities established during the 20th century when we saw a transformation of society in employment and technology and in class status - from 75% of the population classified as working class in 1900 to this falling to 25% by the late 1990s.

Arguments around access to 'elite' universities are important but not enough to help non-traditional students realise their aspirations and opportunities. Once family background and prior attainment are accounted for there is no evidence that 'elite' institutions provide better opportunities for social mobility than other universities. Years of focusing on the elite have not changed the intake of non-traditional students to these institutions, and even if we were to see this group radically change its intake of students this would not address gaps in progression and success between different groups of students, because they only take 20% of all students each year.

In addition, our country's most talented students attend a much wider range of universities than they did 30 years ago. This narrow focus on a small number of universities results in misinformation reaching whole swathes of the population.

Widening participation - access to higher education - is essential but we also need to recognise that times have changed; in particular, non-cognitive or 'employability' skills are increasingly essential alongside good academic standards for student and graduate success. These skills, and the barriers to developing them, have been consistently underestimated in policy debates about social mobility in general and higher education in particular.

Universities and others should now focus on employment outcomes for graduates as well as getting students into and through their degree. Traditional universities in particular, have not previously thought this part of their role.

The focus of our new study is therefore on how we can overcome the disadvantages that make people from lower socio-economic groups less likely to progress on the career ladder than those from more advantaged backgrounds. Our focus is on the many, not the few. And our contention is that a focus on increasing the numbers going into higher education - whether straight after school or later in life - will transform the wealth and prosperity of the country for all. Our report calls for funding to the National Careers Service to be increased to ensure people can find the best course for them and for the Government to introduce a lifetime loan allocation to support re-training and re-skilling.

We make these arguments through looking at the economic and social imperatives for widening participation, tackling some of the myths that exist around social mobility and higher education and looking at where universities are really adding value and supporting students into successful careers. This change in approach is essential if the UK is to support its citizens to be socially mobile, collectively and individually.