Universities and business must both commit to greater social mobility

The Purpose Coalition will bring together the skills and the jobs needed to create a fairer, greener UK, says Justine Greening

December 6, 2020
Miniature people walk from a low to a high pile of coins
Source: iStock

Even as a child, I can’t remember a time when I did not want to go to university. Getting a degree was always an ambition and it proved to be a transformative experience that I drew upon frequently as secretary of state at England’s Department for Education. Enabling more young people who, like me, were the first in their families to go to university was more than just a policy objective to me: it was part of my own life.

For the past 20 years, successive governments have rightly tasked universities with opening themselves up to more people from working-class family backgrounds like my own. That effort has borne fruit. This year, according to the admissions service Ucas, a record rate of more than a fifth of disadvantaged 18-year-olds (22.5 per cent) were due to start an undergraduate degree.

Often it is the hard yards done by the newer universities that we see reflected in those Ucas statistics. These are the institutions that have taken the lead on widening participation and have successfully found ways to enable people with far greater challenges in their personal circumstances than I had to fulfil their potential and better themselves through higher education. 

These are the institutions at the sharp end of how, in practice, we “level up” the UK, as the government is committed to doing. They are going well beyond the rhetoric and aiming to reach those who are the very furthest from a level playing field on access to higher education: young people in care or with learning difficulties that disguise their potential to succeed; mature students who felt they had missed their chance; those coping with caring responsibilities; even those who have been homeless.

For these higher education institutions, widening access is just one part of a much broader mission to deliver equality of opportunity for their students and their communities. They don’t do it because the Office for Students says they have to. They don’t do it to tick some corporate social responsibility box on their performance dashboards. They do it because it is at the core of what they stand for.

Through the Social Mobility Pledge – a coalition of 450 businesses and more than 80 universities, which I founded and chair – I’ve had the chance to work with a number of these “levelling up” universities on developing what we call their “opportunity action plans”. The plans aim to share their best practice and set new ambitions, while also demonstrating the breadth of UK higher education’s ability to drive the levelling up agenda across the nation.

There are numerous examples of how this is already happening. One is the University of Lincoln’s social mobility “ecosystem”, working through schools and the National Centre for Food Manufacturing. Another is Liverpool John Moores University’s long-standing work on creating an “opportunity bridge” for students from Northern Ireland to study there. Universities such as Staffordshire and Bradford both play a crucial, shaping role in their local Opportunity Areas work with schools; Bradford is increasingly connecting the talent of the BAME students its identifies up to opportunities through the Graduate Workforce Bradford Project. And the University of West London has established a deep collaboration with 6,000 businesses, large and small, to make sure career doors are open for their diverse intake. So many other examples can be pointed to.

Our next step is to bring such universities together with businesses similarly committed to social mobility and setting out their own action plans, such as insurance firm Direct Line Group, house-builder Persimmon and recruitment company Adecco.

That’s why, this month, I have launched the Purpose Coalition, comprising vice-chancellors and business leaders who will drive their organisations to work individually and advocate collectively for social mobility.

Of course, there have been lots of widening participation efforts already, and many universities are doing excellent work. What makes this coalition different is that grassroots levelling up is at the heart of its purpose. It’s about having more impact in more communities and connecting up students to the opportunities that businesses offer as they play their role shifting the UK to a zero-carbon economy, another key government pledge. 

Higher education and business are on the front line of delivering both levelling up and decarbonisation, but they can only do this successfully by working hand in hand. Through the Purpose Coalition, we are bringing together the talent, the skills and the jobs to create the fairer, greener UK we need. 

Justine Greening is the former secretary of state for education and founder of the Social Mobility Pledge.

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