It’s time to rethink what social mobility means

As society is transformed, focusing on graduate employment will no longer be sufficient, says Graeme Atherton

April 4, 2016
Man in desert

Lord Willetts understands higher education and academics very well. He was never more accurate than when he said in 2011 that you don’t become an academic to improve social mobility. While the government might set more targets for access to higher education and put social mobility in the title of its policy papers for the sector, this issue remains, in reality, a marginal concern. No matter how hard we may try, this is not going to change until we start to change what social mobility itself means and the debate surrounding it.

The present definition of social mobility is far too narrow. The economic progression of those from low-income backgrounds into professional occupations – the idea of social mobility that dominates the contemporary debate – is important. Even more important, though, is enabling the 99 per cent of the population who wish to advance economically over their lives to do so. It is here that higher education makes a huge contribution. The 35-year-old woman who spent her life as a cleaner, went to the University of Wolverhampton and is now a teacher is every bit as “socially mobile” as the 18-year-old from the council estate who goes to Oxford and becomes an investment banker.

But even focusing on economic mobility for the 99 per cent is not enough. Concentrating solely on economic progression is pushing social mobility into a corner, and may be doing as much harm as good. Social mobility is in essence about what you think success is. The big issues that are coming to dominate the early 21st century are not compatible with a view of success that is cast purely in economic terms, which is what the present view of social mobility is doing so much to cultivate. Technological change is going to transform or eliminate many of the jobs that we are trying so hard to help young people into. New ones will be created. But they will be different and may lack the economic security of the old ones. Climate change will potentially threaten everything about the contemporary material lifestyles we enjoy in a country such as the UK. The breaking down of traditional English culture is more than a function of membership of the European Union or the Syrian conflict; it is indicative of the changing nature of countries such as the UK as people and information become inexorably more mobile.

Addressing the issues above requires a conception of social mobility that goes beyond the economic. Remaining wedded to a vision of individual progress that is based solely on whether you get a better job or not is inadequate when the nature of work itself is changing. We are going to have to learn to build a shared idea of progress that incorporates different views of what this means as multicultural communities become the norm rather than the exception. A much broader conception of social mobility and success is required. A conception that focuses not just on progress defined in terms of job or income, but well-being too. This doesn't mean ignorance in the face of the fundamental importance of economic factors but addressing what success and progress mean from a different starting point.

Looking at social mobility this way – in the context of the major challenges facing our society – makes it appear a very different question for higher education. It doesn't make the issue of who enters higher education any less important, but it approaches that question not as a government policy commitment that universities have to bear up under (as it is perceived by many at present), but as part of a debate around what higher education itself is for. Framing social mobility in this way is a first step in bringing the issue of who goes to higher education closer to the mainstream by being part of a process that challenges higher education to review its existing purpose and to imagine what its purpose in the 21st century will be. At the moment it could be argued, as Ronald Barnett does, that higher education is stuck between seeing itself as opposite ends of a spectrum: either a business or a guardian of knowledge for future generations. While the higher education system in this country has remained remarkably robust and adaptable as it has doubled in size in the past 30 years, it could be accused of still not articulating a unique purpose that transcends these inadequate polar opposites.

While the majority of people do not become an academic to improve social mobility, it is time to start asking why exactly they become one, and what it is they are becoming part of. Answering these questions effectively will require us to start thinking about social mobility a lot more than we have done before.

Graeme Atherton is head of AccessHE and director of the National Education Opportunities Network. His new book, The Success Paradox: why we need a holistic theory of social mobility, is published by Polity Press.

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