Higher Education: Is Social Mobility working?

To think that University degrees once cost only £3000 per year almost feels like a myth.

“I graduated in the summer of 2016, now while my student experience was absolutely fantastic; just a seconds thought about my £27,000 plus student debt is enough to make me feel nauseous. Coming from a working-class family, choosing Higher Education was incredibly daunting, I don’t even think my parents had £9000 in hand to claim their own. University felt like my only option, I needed a degree; if I wanted a successful career and to break my barriers, I had to obtain a degree and I’m so glad I did.”

What is Social Mobility?

Social mobility is the concept used to describe the societal movement of individuals or communities who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Social mobility is a social and economic imperative (UA- Closing the Gap, 2016). Many institutions like Higher Education focus on “upwards” mobility, allowing such individuals to climb the social ladder and overcome barriers like finances and family background. The working-class of the population saw a massive decrease by the turn of the twentieth century. This change occurred due to education as well as the welfare state, health care and the growth of local authorities. With all these changes and increase in middle-class jobs, the structure saw an emergence of more workers.

More jobs now require a higher education qualification and the competition for graduate level jobs has also increased. With fewer low-skilled jobs available, it is understandable why young people are applying for university more than ever. As a result, universities need to establish a system that attracts students to not only apply but to complete their course. Student success isn’t just about the application, but obtaining the degree and getting most out of the experience. While university applications may be on the increase, potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds are still missing out.

What universities do to obtain social mobility

A UCAS report from 2014 found a high increase in applications from sixth form and college leavers. While the gap between the disadvantaged and the privileged is narrowing, there is still much room for improvement. UCAS (2014) found that only 3% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to enter high tariff universities. Many studies found that graduates from a working-class background were still less likely to gain a high graduate position despite their degree.

Since the recruitment cap was lifted in 2015, the Milburn Report encouraged selective universities to admit 3,000 more state school, and 1,400 students of working-class background. Additionally, the commission called for 5,000 Free School Meal pupils to be in admission by 2020. Some selective universities have argued that too much responsibility has been placed on these institutions. Stating that the reason why so few students apply to such universities is because they are not receiving the correct grades while at college. Therefore, schools and colleges should look to improve their own attainment, in order for students to qualify for these universities. As mentioned by Michael Gove in the Higher Education Bill, improving access to Higher Education and the quality of secondary and Further Education go hand in hand.

The increase in tuition fees along with replacing maintenance grants with loans is most definitely a backwards step in the name of social mobility.

With the removal of the NHS Bursaries, it has caused damage for social mobility, specifically for the disadvantaged students. Rather than reducing barriers, the rise in fees has increased financial barriers have affected individuals from low-income households the most. Studies from NUS have shown that students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds rely on grants the most. Rather that improving accessibility, the rising fees have instead created more barriers; resulting in disengaging a community who need it the most.

Studies from the Sutton Trust have shown discrepancies; private-school graduates still earn more in high-status jobs than their state-school correspondents. This can be used to suggest that teaching soft skills should be implemented by universities. Learning soft skills such and confidence in speaking and presentation skills can be incredibly useful way beyond graduation.

The data from the UCAS 2014 report showed a clear decrease in part-time and mature students. These groups of students tend to go under the radar when discussing social mobility. Social mobility may be successful in engaging college-leavers, however, the same cannot be said for part-time or mature students. With regards to the Higher Education & Research Bill, despite social mobility being such a large matter, mature and part-time students are not given the attention they require. As a result, this has affected the attainment of these groups. Care leavers and individuals with disabilities are other groups that should be considered.

In their December 2014 report, the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission stated that universities should broaden their search as far as possible. They should recruit potential students, not based on their exam results but rather on the basis of their potential. It is also important for universities to ensure their graduates leave with the ability to progress onto successful employment.

Social mobility may be improving for young students, however, we still have many barriers to reducing in order to make Higher Education attainable for all.

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