Private ways to advance

October 30, 2014

Alan Milburn is clearly right to highlight the role of higher education in social mobility, but frustratingly, the focus is still on the few, getting the “gifted” minority into traditional universities (“Milburn tells universities to put ‘shoulders to the wheel’ ” on access”, 20 October).

A target of an extra 5,000 students from free school meals backgrounds by 2020 is modest (as a proportion of the annual 465,000 intake), to say the least. And crucially, the aim is wrong-headed. Getting into a top university might make a wonderful story for a trickle of individuals, but it won’t do anything for the UK’s (embarrassing) problems with child poverty and social mobility. The evidence (this year from the National Union of Students and the University Alliance) suggests that students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to integrate into the university culture. This is where the private sector has so much potential, in delivering the kind of environment (less traditional and class conscious) and education (skills and employment-focused) that people from non-traditional backgrounds are looking for and thrive on. But, of course, it’s the private sector where the student number controls haven’t been lifted.

If politicians want to go beyond rhetoric on social mobility, they need to look again at the limitations and the inflexibility that hamper different approaches to providing quality higher education to new groups of students – and where lasting change can be achieved.

Debi Hayes
Deputy provost, GSM London

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