Is it time to rethink social mobility discourse and the meaning of ‘success’?

We must remember that while social mobility is a valuable goal, it’s not one with which all students are willing or able to conform, say Louise Ashley and William Monteith


Queen Mary University of London
23 May 2023
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Social mobility at university
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Improving social mobility has been positioned by successive administrations in the UK as a key policy goal, to which the expansion of higher education over the past few decades has been expected to contribute. A recent report from educational charity the Sutton Trust found that, to some extent, universities do have this effect.

Overall, 35 per cent of graduates who attended university during the mid-2000s were in the top fifth of earners at age 30, compared with 12 per cent of those who had not attended higher education. For students from economically less-advantaged backgrounds, the equivalent figures were 22 per cent and 6 per cent, and young people in the latter group were much more likely to end up in the lowest income categories. Where students from disadvantaged backgrounds attend a selective university, typically an “elite” institution within the Russell Group, the returns can be especially high, but a degree from most universities can improve the chances of securing a “good” job, defined here as one that pays well.

This seems a positive result and, in many ways, it is. However, while stories of this type are rightly celebrated, we suggest a certain caution, so that what is undoubtedly good news does not obscure a more complex picture. Recent academic and policy-related research has tended to focus on students from less-advantaged backgrounds who attend university and are considered upwardly mobile, or at least, are assumed as striving to become so. Yet social mobility is a controversial agenda. For advocates, attention to social mobility is expected to deliver fair outcomes in the labour market, so that class background has a limited impact on where we end up and the “top jobs” are allocated on the basis of apparently neutral values: exceptional talent and hard work.

While recognising value in these goals, critics take a different view. They argue that this vision of meritocracy is difficult to realise because labour markets rarely allocate jobs on the basis of neutral criteria, and “top jobs” often attract the highest pay for reasons quite separate from their incumbents’ special skills. Beliefs otherwise are communicated through “myths of merit”, which help justify and sustain growing inequalities of income and wealth by suggesting that for those at the “top”, excessive rewards are both fairly allocated and justly deserved.

A related critique is that social mobility focuses on making sure a few individuals climb the socio-economic hierarchy – rather than on challenging the hierarchy itself. From this perspective, while pursuing this agenda might provide improved opportunities to a limited number of “talented” people, it helps legitimise the exclusion of those who are left behind, who, presumably, must be considered less so. Also relevant here is that attention to social mobility can suggest all “talented” people should seek to maintain their position or “better” themselves via the labour market, rather than prioritising other dimensions of their lives and/or applying themselves to other pursuits.

Of course, everybody in our society should expect decent work and fair pay. However, one concern is what these narratives mean for students from less-advantaged backgrounds who have a degree but do not necessarily secure a “graduate” job. As noted above, measures of social mobility tend to focus primarily on income and occupational status as markers of “success”, with a job in an “elite” profession such as accountancy or law often considered to epitomise the very “best”.

Research has shown, though, that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds can struggle to access these professions, irrespective of the universities they attended or the grades they obtained. In this context, the social mobility agenda promotes a sort of “cruel optimism” by placing responsibility on graduates, rather than employers, to resolve systemic inequalities in the labour market. Failure to secure a graduate role may be especially painful in the context of insistent narratives that the only “legitimate” result of a university education should be to move “up”, in socio-economic terms.

Social mobility discourses and the meaning of “success” have also typically been generated with reference to the work, lives and interests of the middle classes. There is an associated tendency to assume a single or universal ambition for graduates, which may not exist. As just one example, there are good reasons why students from less-advantaged backgrounds may rationally avoid some “elite” professions that have traditionally offered routes to upward social mobility. This partly relates to risks of bias and discrimination, but these jobs are also often defined by long working hours and associated burnout rates, and can be difficult to combine with other responsibilities and interests, including caring for family.

David Graeber famously claimed that jobs in areas such as corporate law, accountancy and investment banks count as “bullshit jobs” because they lack meaning or purpose, causing people in them to feel alienated and depressed. Of course, these jobs do not represent the only routes to upward social mobility, but our key point here is that a “good job” is clearly not reducible only to the income it provides. We need better knowledge of how young people make sense of and perhaps resist messages to the contrary – and, perhaps, how they might be assisted in doing so.

There is of course existing interest in this subject, including seminal work by Nicola Ingram and colleagues who have explored the experiences and outcomes of students from different class backgrounds from a longitudinal perspective and in significant depth. However, we note an increasing sense of unease, among some colleagues at least, as our own institutions continue to expand and diversify but not always with sufficient attention to the needs and aspirations of students from diverse backgrounds, including how they can be supported to fulfil more than one definition of “success”. This is especially important given that the shape of the labour market is changing, and one risk of current efforts at social mobility is that we are preparing students to move “upwards” into jobs that, within a decade or so, might not exist.

Against this backdrop, our central claim is that a university education can undoubtedly be life-changing in a positive sense, but we should not assume this is always the case, and it is important to ask students from all backgrounds what this could mean. We raise these points when many universities are struggling with poor student satisfaction, along with low engagement and attendance. This is a “wicked problem”, which means it has many causes and is difficult to address, but treating diverse students as a homogenous group is unlikely to help.

With all of this in mind, continuing to improve our understanding of the aspirations and experiences of all graduates, including those who are not “upwardly mobile” in the terms traditionally defined, is not only an ethical imperative but might also enable a more sensitive institutional response.

Louise Ashley is senior lecturer in organisation studies at Queen Mary University of London. Her research explores the use and abuse of diversity and inclusion policy as a form of reputation management, and how social class influences access to and career progression within “elite” occupations.   

William Monteith is senior lecturer in human geography at Queen Mary University of London. His research explores subjective experiences of work at the margins of capitalist economies, the relationships, politics and places produced by these experiences, and the possibilities they provide for realising more just and inclusive economies. 

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