Redirecting the disadvantaged into FE will further stunt UK social mobility

Higher education is no panacea, but critical thinking is the best antidote to inequality, say Chris Cunningham and Colin Samson

July 29, 2020
Traditional English terraced houses with huge council block in the background
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Universities’ promises of social mobility through degrees are dishonest, according to the UK’s universities minister, Michelle Donelan.

Speaking at an event aiming to widen participation in higher education on 1 July, Donelan asserted that the majority of the work being done to recruit more students from “disadvantaged backgrounds” primarily services the needs of the institutions themselves. She claimed that the debt that students amass from their time at university does not match the enhanced career prospects they are promised, and that consequently universities “take advantage” of students.

Just over a week later, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, delivered a virtual speech stating “we must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job” and claiming to “stand for the forgotten 50 per cent” who do not go to university.

Such statements challenge decades of cross-party policy linking universities with social mobility. Additionally, they contradict the regulator of English universities, the Office for Students (OfS), which works with other agencies to enhance social mobility through university participation. And they evidence a surprising level of naivety about the society they purport to represent.

Although Donelan promotes the goal that “every person can rise to the position that their talent and hard work allows”, we know from the Sutton Trust’s Elitist Britain 2019 report that this is a pipedream. The Social Mobility Commission likewise shows that Britain remains a deeply class-based society, where prospects of social mobility remain “stagnant”. Even Upreach – an organisation that Donelan praises and is dedicated to helping “students from less-advantaged backgrounds to secure top jobs” – emphasises social immobility: “the top of many professions is dominated by those educated at private schools” even though “they educate only 7 per cent of the population”, it notes on its website.

The ministers’ silence on pervasive inequality reinforces the underlying premise of social mobility, the existence of meritocracy. This notion is aggressively marketed within higher education. The OfS’s National Collaborative Outreach Programme, now renamed Uni Connect, works by targeting and tracking primary school-aged children from “disadvantaged backgrounds” in an attempt to “raise aspirations” and facilitate their access to university. The Opportunity Area Plans unveiled in 2017 are awash with career-based rhetoric, and universities themselves reinforce faith in meritocracy by spending large sums of money on their careers services.

Yet the top spenders are not ranked the highest with regards to employability. One study suggests that University College Birmingham spends the most (just under £200 per student in 2018/19) but graduates of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge dominate the most desirable professional roles, demonstrating that entrenched privilege is a better guarantee of success.

Another means to promote the illusion of social mobility is to encourage students to think that they are highly successful. Analysis published by the OfS in December 2018 showed that 27 per cent of students obtained a first-class degree in 2016/17, up from 16 per cent in 2010/11. Of all university students, 78 per cent obtained an upper degree (first or 2:1), up from 67 per cent in 2010/11. Analysis concluded that the scale of this rise cannot be attributed to the rise in pupils’ prior attainment or changes in student demographics alone. Universities across the country use many techniques to gerrymander marks upwards to meet what has become an increased student demand for such marks, promoted by the transactional nature of tuition fees and loans.

As classic sociological studies demonstrate, social mobility is complex, understood longitudinally through various indicators and subject to multiple interpretations. But none of this is evident in government policy documents and ministerial pronouncements, where “social mobility” is invoked to appeal to individual desire and notions of success, while at the same time reinforcing the individualism that justifies extreme inequalities.

According to Donelan, “true social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path”. This seemingly trite statement sounds like a retreat from any appeal to genuine social mobility, and it is.

The real punchline in these announcements is the suggestion that the place for “disadvantaged” students now is not in universities but in skills-based further education and apprenticeships. While this strategy may present young people with genuine opportunities to establish meaningful careers, class differentials will likely be reinvigorated. In the process, the “disadvantaged” will be deprived of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects that teach students to think critically and orient themselves beyond the capital-driven world of inequalities.

While mass university education has not seen a huge uptick in social mobility, it remains the case that the production of questioning and democratically conscious graduates is a pathway to addressing social immobility. But the narrative of social mobility in universities has coincided with the replacement of humanistic ideals with a business model of knowledge: a dead end for everyone. Related trends to substitute scholarly knowledge for “content delivery” are likely to get worse with the pandemic-fuelled acceleration of online learning.

With fewer students from non-traditional backgrounds now destined for higher education and many universities feeling obliged to narrow their provision to job market requirements, the UK’s long-standing social gradients will remain.

The government’s announcements seem to be a good demonstration of the Spanish expression gatopardismo: the policy of changing everything so that everything stays the same. The “disadvantaged”, mentioned eight times in Donelan’s short speech, remain a commodity whose aspirations are reshaped to suit the needs of the advantaged.   

Chris Cunningham is a PhD student and Colin Samson is professor in the department of sociology at the University of Essex.

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Reader's comments (7)

In my own 30-year career, I have not seen that mass university education has produced "questioning and democratically conscious graduates". In fact. it has been quite the reverse as modules are often reduced to competence exercises, where students satisfy learning outcomes. The demands for practical and "job-related" skills often come from the students who would be better served in a high-quality parallel vocational system. At present staff members are often frustrated, highly-academic students may not be sufficiently challenged and vocationally-inclined students may find the content too theoretical. We have created all the problems of an unstreamed comprehensive system in many of our universities.
I agree - this claim that HE teaches critical thinking is not true - it teaches 'toe-ing the line' by having students regurgitate what their lecturers/professors want. And it is an equal falsehood to claim that FE or vocational courses do not teach critical thinking -- when a car mechanic get a car with a problem, they need to troubleshoot to find out the cause of the problem, much like a doctor making a diagnosis. This is what differentiates a good versus a bad car mechanic. And doing that does not need critical thinking? This article just shows the self-satisfied smugness of people in HE thinking how 'superior' they are in achieving these 'higher-order' learning outcomes and thinking ONLY HE achieves these outcomes.
"We have created all the problems of an unstreamed comprehensive system in many of our universities." This is all too evident with some of the courses now being 'delivered', taught at the lowest ability student (the cash cows of the system) level to all. But those Universities that maintain standards are portrayed as being discriminatory, so those with real ability are tarred with that as well, though some of the recent (quota?) 'products' of Oxford do seem to be less suited to academia and more to promoting bloody revolution.
Not feasible and not popular to say this but the Grammar School system produced greater social mobility. The failure of the system was that successive governments told every child that didn't go to grammar school that they had "failed" (what was basically an educational aptitude test) at the age of 11 and did nothing to provide the secondary moderns schools with the right kind of comparable support. The large nationalised industries could then soak up all the semi and unskilled workers. What we lack is a qualification system and social perception that treats a fully qualified and time-served electrician/ plumber/ mechanic as if they were degree qualified.
As a former grammar school boy, I agree completely with Balder. My home area still offers the chance that I had (and my father too) free of charge - one of only a tiny minority remaining. To be even more non-PC, it is a boys school with a corresponding girls school on the other side of town. They are both excellent and should remain single-sex.
Glad to see other readers seeing through the imaginary premise of this article This myth about critical thinking is peddled by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, because quite frankly I can't imagine any academic in the UK being so ignorant or deluded as to really believe it In Stem, courses have been stripped of challenging technical content and turned into an extension of school, with spoon feeding and regurgitation of facts. Subjects that involve a lot of mathematics or complex physics are especially lacking in syllabuses because it's difficult to engineer high marks and they're unpopular with students. Endless coursework and assignments vs. mostly end of year exams, are designed to boost final marks, and hence engineer the desired number of firsts and upper seconds. This creates a system in which students are continually working but never really have any time to engage with the material There is no reflection, no critical thinking, no application of knowledge The latter is in any case not possible because the knowledge is too superficial. There is simply no depth What the system creates is very self confident, and simultaneously very ignorant, graduates. This is a dangerous mix. Universites are very good at hoodwinking students, convincing them with marketing and jargon about 'learning outcomes' that they are on their way to being the next Einstein if they fulfil all the tick box requirements And the students largely fall for it. Prey tell, where is this critical thinking? As far as I can tell, it's mostly confined to reading the course handbook, which they are very adept at exploiting to eek out more marks or avoid sanction
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In response to msl_csp: Thanks for your comment. We agree that “questioning and democratically conscious graduates”, are unlikely to be numerous under the current commercially oriented university regimes. These administrations often require modules to be ‘competence exercises’, as you rightly note. Our point is that the narrative of “social mobility” in universities over recent decades has shifted higher education from being seen as a public good in which questioning and democratically conscious values survived to a private investment for the individualistic pursuit of ‘success’. This private investment through a university degree has now been declared illusory by the UK government. It turns out that the narrative promoted to students at a young age through NCOP and other agencies is barely credible in a country with such class-based immobility at its core. We highlight that for those students who study at private schools and go to Oxford or Cambridge before embarking on an elite career, “job related” skills or vocationally oriented desires are unlikely to be relevant because pre-established pathways are more or less guaranteed for their future. In response to deheuty: Thanks for your comment. We are not suggesting that skills such as those needed to produce mechanics are not important; quite the opposite. Indeed, we are both sons of mechanics! We are questioning how many children from advantaged backgrounds are likely to be working in these occupations. Given that much of the focus of the “social mobility” narrative around universities is based upon graduate earnings, it is important to consider how the earnings of a mechanic compares to that of a barrister, politician, or investment banker for example. We celebrate all knowledge which fosters critical thinking, including mechanics, and advocate a liberal arts or experiential approach to learning which can combine both practical and intellectual skills. In response to NJF: Thanks for your comment. The contextual admission process is often seen as an attempt to counteract the pre-existing inequalities we mention by considering how an individual’s life situation may impact upon and influence their ‘success’ within the higher education journey. It could be said that in efforts to help students realise their aspirations, universities lower standards. However, we question whether the ‘lowering of standards’ is really about the student at all, and rather we suggest that if the steady supply of loan-bearing but tuition paying students were not the driver of a university’s income, we may see a different philosophy of education being played out in these institutions. A genuine interest in addressing a student’s lack of ‘ability’ would invest time and money into support systems and structures that encourage and challenge students to develop their academic standards to their highest potential. It is no coincidence, that at the same time that a reformulation of knowledge has occurred, and the subsequent grade inflation has increased, student support systems at many universities have been merged, outsourced, moved online, or seen a reduction in investment. The ‘content delivery’ we mention in the article, of course, keeps the “social mobility” narrative alive. Nonetheless, the ministerial shift towards Further Education and vocational courses that we oppose here, could be a direct response to counteract a growing recognition among graduates that have been encouraged to ‘think that they are highly successful’, that the promises of success that were advertised have not materialised. In response to balder: Thanks for your comments. Grammar school education does nothing to disrupt the class-based inequalities which remain; rather, individual ‘success’ justifies the myth that if you are clever enough and work hard enough, you can ‘progress’. This may be true for some, but luck has a role to play in this process, as do inequalities based on a person’s circumstance or personal characteristics and identity. What your comment reveals, however, is the methods through which the class system of Britain has been reinforced. We believe that education should not be streamed and segregated, but a broad-based learning should be celebrated. For example, the electricians, plumbers, and mechanics you mention may also want to learn philosophy, history, and literature as part of their education. Retreating to move ‘disadvantaged’ students into FE as Donelan and Williamson propose will prevent this. Similarly, we question how many of the industries you mention include people who studied at private school and/or Oxbridge universities, and we ask why they are not trained in a trades-based education. And again, what is the wage differentiation between these trades and ‘elite occupations’? In response to airevolt1973: Thanks for your comments. We argue that universities could be places for critical thinking but that they increasingly are not for many of the reasons you cite. Indeed, “critical thinking” can be used as a marketing strategy, but the most important myth is that of “social mobility” which marketised higher education often trades upon. Thanks for your rich reflections on how the teaching of STEM subjects is being perverted to engineer high marks. The pattern of continually working but never really having any time to engage with the material is similar across all disciplines. We discuss this as a “business model of knowledge”….a “substitution of scholarly knowledge for content delivery”. These patterns may go into overdrive through online ‘blended learning’. We propose that we should work to reclaim scholarly knowledge and challenge the myths that justify the distortion of education you describe. Working at an institution where scholars and faculty have more autonomy and are not bound by strictures from managers and administrators would allow academics to genuinely foster the critical thinking skills which are fundamental to democracy. Many of these principles are outlined in Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities.

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