Basit Mahmood is Deputy Chairman Political of Luton Conservative Association.
Policies aimed at improving social mobility have become a familiar rite of passage in British political life. Lord Sugar was recently named as the new enterprise tsar, with the aim to equip young people with the right skills to make the most out of their lives. This was in addition to the publication of the higher education White Paper, in which Jo Johnson set out his ambitious plans to ensure every young person in the country could fulfil their potential. Though social mobility may well be the defining cause of the current Parliament, it has become clear, as evidenced by the White Paper, that there will be no departure from conventional wisdom on an issue that has proved impossible to solve for successive governments. Politicians have become obsessed with simply aiming to include ever-greater numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in top universities. Once those from poorer backgrounds gain entry, the assumption is that they will be set for life. The harsh reality is very different.
In the White Paper, Johnson set out his plans to ‘Double the proportion of disadvantaged students entering higher education by 2020 compared to 2009’, and to ‘increase the number of BME students by 20 per cent by 2020’. Yet social mobility is more than just children from disadvantaged backgrounds securing places at top universities, it’s about ensuring that such students stay on, get a good degree and are effectively supported in their chosen career path. By itself, a degree from a top university does not guarantee you a well-paid job or a chance to get on to the property ladder. Just ask any one of the tens of thousands of students from my generation who were told, under Labour’s plans to get 50 per cent of students into university, that securing a degree would mean a lifetime of success. I still recall student’s eyes light up with cast iron guarantees of ‘you’ll earn a £100,000 over your career with a degree and a guarantee of a top job’ from their careers advisors. Getting a foot through the door at one of the country’s top universities is only the beginning of a long journey, with many more hurdles yet to come.
This does not mean that university education is the only means to helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds fulfil their potential. The Government is doing a fantastic job with regards to raising the profile of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications that are equally a crucial means through which to increase opportunities for, and improve the life chances of children across the country. However, given the increasing number of young people attending university and the requirement for a degree to enter leading professions, it is important to address why, despite increasing number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending leading universities, social mobility is yet to improve.
It is simply not enough for universities and the government to congratulate themselves for admitting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Across the country students from non-traditional backgrounds face many more barriers after entry. For example, the latest recorded figures have highlighted that the dropout rate for poorer students is higher than that of their more well off peers. It stood at 8.2 per cent for the 2013-14 cohort, up 0.5 percentage point year-on-year. To compound the problem, disadvantaged students are less likely to get a first or 2:1, or to go on to a graduate-level job after graduation. Pressurising universities under access agreements to make sure they hit their targets is different to ensuring those from disadvantaged backgrounds fulfil their potential and are not left behind when they get there. The former is far less an indicator of improving social mobility than the latter.
What about those students who do stick at it, work hard and do well during their undergraduate studies? One would think they would be handsomely rewarded in what prides itself as an increasingly meritocratic society. Sadly, this is far from the case. Recent research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in conjunction with Cambridge and Harvard Universities made a damning revelation: ‘Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities’. The ten per cent highest-earning male graduates from richer backgrounds earned about 20 per cent more than the ten per cent highest earners from relatively poorer backgrounds. The importance of this finding cannot be underestimated. It once again shows that a good degree is no guarantor of success on the career ladder, and what matters more is the resources available to you from the day you are born. It is a piece of evidence that flies in the face of the politicians who thought that by simply pressuring our best institutions to open their doors to those from poorer backgrounds, everything else would somehow magically fall into place.
If we are to fulfil the potential of students irrespective of their backgrounds, then the Government needs to demand more of universities to improve upon their efforts to support students during their undergraduate years. There must be a focus on equipping students with the right skills. No mention of skills and experience can go without addressing the scandal that is the ‘unpaid internship’. Such internships clearly favour those from wealthy backgrounds. How a new graduate who doesn’t live in or within immediate reach of London can work for free or even on the minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities in the world is beyond comprehension.
Ultimately, though, we must guard against adopting the language of previous Labour governments who failed so spectacularly at improving social mobility, due to their emphasis on arbitrary targets and their narrow focus on ensuring students from disadvantaged backgrounds get into university as the be all and end all. It is just the beginning, with a lot more to be done thereafter.