20/01/2016 11:09 GMT | Updated 20/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Social Mobility in Education can Change Lives

If we don't address the worrying trends we are witnessing in social mobility today, the long-term impact on our whole society will be devastating.

The benefits of higher education are great for both the individual - and their society. Countries with highly educated populations are not only wealthier, they are more peaceful, healthier and progressive.

When I was a medical undergraduate in the 1970s, only a handful of my old school friends had also taken the decision to continue their education. Today the picture is very different, with nearly 50% of 18-25 year olds attending university.

But the fact remains that certain social groups in our society continue to be excluded from university.

Statistics released recently by UCAS showing that working class white boys are 50 per cent less likely than girls of a similar background to pursue a university education, and indeed The Sutton Trust's report that indicates only 29% of white working class boys living in poorer areas continued education after the age of 16, do not come as a surprise to us at the University of Sussex.

The situation in the UK is reflected in other OECD countries and Australia, with academics and policy makers puzzling over why women far outnumber men at undergraduate level. Is it down to the increasing feminisation of education and shortage of male teachers? Or possibly a more general "crisis of masculinity"?

We have also heard from The Social Market Foundation that inequalities in educational achievement is a very real issue, with evidence that the achievement gap between the richest and the poorest pupils remains persistently large.

With the Government now planning to replace grants for the poorest students with loans, and accepting that this change will mean that students from poorer families will graduate with the largest debts - the need for action is real.

Sussex, alongside many other higher education institutions, have been explicit that our strategies to encourage social mobility must continue to be an absolute priority. But we need to keep asking ourselves if we are doing enough. We must look at how we can attract those under-represented groups into higher education, we must innovate in how we support them throughout their studies and importantly help them launch into careers.

So what more can be done within higher education?

Offering foundation courses can be a brilliant first step. These courses provide an excellent gateway for students who may not have received a gold-standard education and the necessary grades to initially enrol. So a year-long foundation course gives them chance to get up-to-speed before beginning an undergraduate course.

Universities must also provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with a programme of support for their pastoral needs and assistance with integrating and networking with other students.

At Sussex we currently allocate around a third of our additional fee income from undergraduates towards exactly this kind of activity. Analysis of The Office of Fair Access's projections of future spending show that Sussex is in the top three of universities in the south-east of England in terms of spending on widening access, allowing us to offer a range of grants, support services and outreach programmes. With nearly 50% of our UK and European undergraduate students coming from lower income families, we're committed to it.

And we have proof that a comprehensive programme that considers the entire student life-cycle can produce the right results.

In 2012 we launched our First Generation Scholars scheme that offers students from relatively low income families (under £42,620) the opportunity to receive an on-going financial award as well as a package of support. On graduating in 2015, these scholars successfully closed the gap in attainment with over 90% achieving a good degree (first or upper second), rising to 96% of black and ethnic minority first generation scholars.

Research (from the Social Mobility Commission) shows that inequalities also exist when it comes to securing graduate trainee scheme placements. Widening participation activity must look further than qualifications alone so we're allocating resources towards internships as well more opportunities for study aboard.

It's also widely recognised that engaging with primary school children can foster academic ambition. At Sussex we hold information sessions and workshops for children, their parents and teachers and invite many local primary and secondary schools in the South East to take part in these initiatives. For example later this year we're welcoming teenagers from Tower Hamlets to our summer school.

However, higher education alone cannot solve the problem of why so few white males from disadvantaged backgrounds enter higher education. We can help build aspiration and improve attitudes but we cannot reverse entirely the failure of our school system.

A university experience that delivers successful and employable students should be a choice for all. I believe that having a social mobility strategy at the very heart of a higher education institution is paramount to taking us on that path. I'm yet to speak to a counterpart in one of England's universities who doesn't feel a responsibility in this space - but action (and ultimately money) speaks louder than words.