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Joshua Stubbs is a third year undergraduate in the Department of Education at University of York. Building on a guest lecture from Nicholas Miller, Director of The Bridge Group on his “Education, Policy and Society” module,  he considers the role of higher education and the value of an undergraduate degree in addressing  social mobility.


Since the turn of the millennium, British universities have been encouraged to recruit more students from traditionally under-represented backgrounds to their undergraduate courses. This remains central to the Conservative Party’s goal of improving social mobility. Their aim of doubling the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education in time for the next general election is an ambitious, indeed laudable one. However, while related, broadening access to higher education and improving social mobility should not necessarily be conflated. Ensuring that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to higher education is not enough to ensure that a fairer, more socially mobile society is created.

While the total number of people participating in higher education has been increasing, access to Britain’s most prestigious institutions of higher education has remained unequal. In a third of Russell Group institutions – considered to be Britain’s most elite institutions – on some measures, the number of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds has been decreasing (Havergal, 2016). Using data gathered on graduate outcomes, Savage et al., (2015) have identified six universities in the South of England which form a ‘Golden Triangle’, producing a disproportionately large amount of people that go on to dominate the best paid, most influential jobs in Britain. This was most discernible in Cambridge, where 50% of those who had graduated from its Russell Group institution had joined Britain’s most elite occupations, compared with just 10% of those that had graduated from its non-Russell Group counterpart. This is important because, while the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education has increased by 4.8% over the last decade, access to Russell Group institutions has increased by just 1.4% (Havergal, 2016). In addition to this, while the number of people participating in higher education has increased overall, students from advantaged backgrounds have outnumbered those from disadvantaged ones (Dorling, 2016). Compounding this, Laurison & Friedman (2015), after finding that in Britain’s most elite occupations people from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to earn less than their originally more advantaged peers, floated the term ‘class ceiling’, while Britton, Deardon, Shepard & Vignoles (2016) have found that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same degree from the same institution still continue to earn less in the long-term. Clearly then, there is far more to improving social mobility than broadening access to higher education.

While the goal of ensuring increased access to higher education should not be abandoned, questions should be raised as to why, when access to higher education has undergone a dramatic increase since the turn of the millennium, inter-generational social mobility in Britain remains so poor when compared to comparable European nations such as Germany (Blanden, Gregg & Machin, 2005; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2007). Ironically, a partial explanation for this could be the increased number of people with undergraduate degrees. With an increased number of people with undergraduate degrees competing for a similar proportion of influential, well-remunerated jobs, there is less for those handling job applications to use when differentiating between them. This could be increasing the importance of inherited wealth as well as social and cultural capital accumulated earlier on in life (Savage et al., 2015). For example, London-based unpaid internships lock out those from more disadvantaged backgrounds because for most people, spending months at a time in London – one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in – without receiving an income is not a plausible option. This problem, of course, is not exclusive to London, but applies to all unpaid internships that are not located closely to an individual’s existing residence.

What has become clear is that while an undergraduate degree can longer guarantee an influential, well-remunerated job, such jobs are becoming increasingly difficult to secure in the absence of an undergraduate degree (Savage et al., 2015). In light of this, the insistence that ‘education, education, education’ is the answer to all social and economic inequalities should be questioned, particularly when it is aligned with the notion that it is acceptable to triple the cost of tuition fees and replace maintenance grants with loans, placing the most debt onto the shoulders of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Britton, Crawford & Deardon (2015) estimate that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can be expected to owe as much as £53,000 for an undergraduate degree by 2019.

Enter the Bridge Group. The Bridge Group collect, critique and disseminate research relating to education, reflecting in particular on higher education. The director – Nicholas Miller – kindly spoke to the University of York’s undergraduate ‘Education, Policy and Society’ module group about what the organisation does. Describing itself as an ‘independent, not for profit, policy association promoting social mobility through higher education’, the Bridge Group acts as a bridge (no pun intended) between academics and politicians. A complex, competitive and conflicting world to navigate, the Bridge Group actively collects, evaluates and simplifies research findings before presenting them to politicians with a view to improving social mobility. With ostensible support from across the political spectrum, Miller tells us that now is a good time for the Bridge Group to remain vocal. Simply promoting an understanding of why Britain’s lack of social mobility is a problem has itself been a prolonged, painful and difficult challenge.

This challenge was made much easier when the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2014) published a report which highlighted the extent to which being from disadvantaged background can impede upon one’s life chances, dispelling the idea that Britain is a meritocratic nation. The Commission demonstrated that while just 7% of pupils attend independent schools, 71% of senior judges, 43% of newspaper columnists and 36% of the Cabinet had done so. Despite being out-performed in higher education (Rodeiro & Zanini, 2015), Murphy (2016) has since produced similar findings, demonstrating that 61% of doctors, 51% of solicitors and 48% of senior civil servants have also been educated in independent schools.

In total, children in independent schools continue to have on average more than treble the amount spent on their school education when compared to children in state-funded schools (Raey, 2012), placing them at a constant structural advantage. When questioned, Miller rejected the suggestion that a cap should be placed on the number of independent school educated applicants Russell Group institutions should be able to admit, arguing that rather than ‘fiddling with quotas’, it would be better to concentrate on addressing the root causes of educational inequalities. However, some might suggest that independent schools, or at least elite independent schools such as Eton – where boarding fees exceed £34,000 per annum – are potentially one such cause, concentrating social and cultural capital in the hands of a small proportion of people (Swift, 2004).

Miller also pointed out that educational inequalities emerge early on in life, citing research that has indicated that by the age of five, there is a nineteen month attainment gap between the richest and poorest children in Britain (Washbrook & Waldfogel, 2012, cited in Sutton Trust, 2012). In addition to this, the Bridge Group also looks at what happens after undergraduate studies, exploring the world of postgraduate studies as well as that of labour market. Access to postgraduate courses remains unequal (Wakeling & Hampden-Thomson, 2013). Yet, unlike undergraduate courses, this remains largely absent from public-political discourse. According to Miller, the number of employers that are requesting postgraduate qualifications is increasing, while people with postgraduate qualifications often earn more (Lindley & Machin, 2013). While loans are being made available to those interested in postgraduate courses, £10,000 is not enough to fund full-time studies. This means that those from more disadvantaged backgrounds will either be forced to take on part-time work or miss out on the opportunity altogether. As Miller put in, access to postgraduate studies requires capital rather than just an ‘appetite for debt’.

To conclude, Miller identified a number of different factors that impact upon social mobility, citing education as chief among them. However, while education is important, some might argue that economic disparities are more so. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2015), Britain is one of the most unequal affluent nations in the world. For the first time since 1936, the richest 1% of people in Britain are now sharing an estimated 15% of  national income (Dorling, 2015), while at the same time, between 2010 and 2011 alone, an estimated 300,000 more children entered into poverty (Cribb, Hood, Joyce & Phillips, 2013).

While education can do a lot to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and equal access to higher education should be encouraged, educational institutions cannot be held solely responsible for promoting social mobility. In light of widening structural inequalities (Piketty, 2014), no matter how many people gain access to higher education, the hope of building a fairer, more socially mobile society is going to remain difficult to realise. In the meantime, the Bridge Group – with their political hue more difficult to discern than that of other think-tanks such as Centre for Policy Studies or the Institute for Public Policy Research – should continue to do their brilliant work, building connections between politicians and academics, and helping ensure that Britain’s lamentable lack of social mobility remains recognised as both unfair and a serious threat to social cohesion.


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