Access to higher education should be afforded to anyone who wishes to pursue it, so it is disheartening to note the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showing a decline in the number of students from poorer backgrounds enrolling at some of the UKs top institutions.
Opportunities for upward social mobility haven't improved much since the 1970s. In fact, the ability to move up the social ladder relative to your parents has, in some ways, declined.
In the developed world the UK has among the lowest upward social mobility figures according to the OECD. With such grim prospects, how can individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their prospects in the world? University education has long been recognised as a vehicle for upward social mobility, with various strategies designed for access and success for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Widening Participation policy adopted by all universities seeks to widen access to higher education by increasing the number of students from under-represented groups including those from lower income families. However, securing a place at university is only the first step. It is the experience a student gains during their journey through higher education that will truly improve their future prospects.
Recent evidence shows that university students who take part in international experiences, such as study and work placements abroad see a direct and positive impact on their career. A report launched by the UK Higher Education International Unit revealed that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds who took part in international programmes earned more in 11 out of 17 subject areas. Graduates who engaged in international mobility activity were also significantly less likely to be unemployed than those who did not (5% compared to 7.6%). They were even less likely to be unemployed than graduates from all backgrounds who were mobile, than those who were not (5.4% compared to 6.7%).
At Bath Spa University we offer a Certificate in Global Citizenship programme designed to recognise the global perspective of undergraduate studies and to open opportunities for students in the global employment market. In addition to a lecture and seminar programme with internationally renowned speakers, home and EU students undertake an international placement. There is also eligibility for a Global Citizenship Scholarship of £1,000 to help fund the international placement. Recent figures indicate that over 70% of home students enrolled on this programme have at least one Widening Participation marker, with over 30% coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and 46% from non-professional backgrounds.
By providing opportunities for students to engage in international mobility programmes like this, it is hoped that we can provide real opportunities for upward social mobility for our most disadvantaged students and indeed for all of our students. Equal opportunity demands that we break the relentless social stratification of our society. Disadvantaged background should not be destiny.