Levelling-up requires more from everyone – including universities

Government, enterprise and education must contribute to a multi-pronged, long-term programme to boost social mobility, says Anulika Ajufo

June 17, 2021
Stones balanced on a see-saw, symbolising the UK government's levelling up agenda
Source: iStock

I know all too well that life is not a level playing field. Although education can reduce the gradient a little, true levelling requires much more.

I chair the board of a careers-led London university dedicated to nurturing the skills, emotional intelligence and creativity needed to thrive in a constantly changing world. I am fortunate to have a board that reflects the diversity of its student population – fortunate because effective decisions are, by nature, representative. But representation requires empowerment, and that perhaps explains why our board’s inclusivity is somewhat unique across the UK sector.

Education empowers. It transformed my life, for instance. By the age of 17, I had been permanently excluded from three secondary schools and was a teenage mother. My choices had made the prospect of higher education and a professional career increasingly improbable. Of course, it’s easy to make bad decisions when you are young and inexperienced, but their impact is magnified in some environments more than others.

In hindsight, I realise how easy it is for particular groups to end up on a path from which there can be no return, and I am thankful for the confluence of factors that led to my turnaround story. An evidence-based policy that targeted teenage mothers helped me to get into a good university and degree programme, and I graduated top of my class with an engineering degree. Then I secured a graduate role in finance through the help of Sponsors of Education Opportunity, a UK charity focused on supporting ethnic minorities into highly skilled professions.

The policy in question was England’s 10-year teenage pregnancy strategy, launched in 1999. This involved a comprehensive programme of action across four themes. One theme was coordinated support for young parents, to help them prevent further unplanned pregnancies in the short term and also to break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage in the long term. Both objectives were achieved in my case – and in that of many others. The under-18 conception rate reduced steadily over the strategy’s lifespan; by 2014, it had by dropped 51 per cent compared with the 1998 baseline, with significant reductions in areas of high deprivation. The social commentator Polly Toynbee called the programme “the success story of our time”.

Tackling wider challenges around social mobility and skills deficits requires similarly multi-pronged, long-term and evidence-based strategies, nationally led and locally delivered. I am encouraged by the government’s ambition to empower and uplift young people from all backgrounds, and significant efforts to widen participation over the past three decades mean that the UK already has more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university than ever before – including, despite the Covid pandemic, an 8 per cent year-on-year rise in acceptances for 2020. This is evidence of progress, but there is still much to be done.

Much-needed approaches include raising the status of technical and vocational education, providing more school-leaver apprenticeships, and offering second chances for those who do not get on the academic ladder at 16 – or who fall off it during university. We should also champion and provide tailored support to universities focused on increasing participation, as well as creating alternatives for those young people who still don’t attend a university.

But while being employable is the most important outcome of going to university, the focus on employability oversimplifies the transformative potential of the university experience. It is important that universities foster environments in which young people are encouraged to build diverse relationships, develop a social conscience and internalise the value of diversity and inclusion.

Moreover, while universities should produce employable graduates, the onus should not be on universities to generate employment for them. I founded a not-for-profit more than 15 years ago to create opportunities for young people from under-represented groups. Most of our students come from ethnic minority backgrounds, predominantly black. They attend a mix of universities, including Oxbridge and other Russell Group institutions, and have all graduated with good honours degrees. Yet they tend to have similar stories to tell of subsequently facing a never-ending job search.

This has led me to believe that a university degree is insufficient by itself to change the life trajectory of a person disadvantaged by race or class. Also crucial is what my organisation has been able to provide: a strong support network and real-world know-how.

Graduates from both 2020 and 2021 are now competing with each other for this year’s entry-level roles – not to mention with established early career professionals laid off during the pandemic. This squeeze will likely continue into 2022 and beyond. The government’s levelling-up plans should increase the provision of education, skills and training, as well as career opportunities in local hometowns, addressing barriers faced by disadvantaged groups as a priority.

We are truly at an inflection point. Getting levelling-up right will not only accelerate the post-pandemic recovery but also have a far-reaching positive impact on future generations and the social and economic viability of the UK.

The government needs to devise the right policies and back them with adequate funding. Civil society needs to offer greater help into higher education and careers to those who need it. Companies need to look beyond familiar Rolodexes to get the best candidates to fill their vacancies. And all universities – not just ones like mine – need to look further beyond familiar schools and postcodes when they recruit.

Anulika Ajufo is chair of the University of East London.

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Reader's comments (2)

Universities can only do so much. Although graduates should not be unemployable, I take issue with the statement "But while being employable is the most important outcome of going to university..." since the purpose of true higher education is to admit students to the land of the educated that has the by-product of employability. Going away and living independently is another important element so that the student can make their own choices free of family or other pressures. A university is not just a training school that bolts skills onto an otherwise unchanged person, it is a tranformative entity that frees students to think for themselves.
Given the massive expansion of the HE sector over the last 20 years, shouldn't we already be seeing a positive impact on 'levelling up?' or has this massive expansion actually caused this problem: "Yet they tend to have similar stories to tell of subsequently facing a never-ending job search."

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