Elite institutions should 'help create a more equal society'

Universities must do more to assist their local communities, says RSA chief. John Morgan reports

November 25, 2010

Elite higher education institutions should be forced to recruit students from disadvantaged local schools and should take a civic role in helping their communities to deal with the effects of government cuts, according to a former director of policy for Tony Blair.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, described higher education as "incredibly important" to social mobility in a keynote speech at the Equality Challenge Unit's conference in London last week.

But there is an "inverse correlation between the degree to which a university thinks it is fantastic and elite, and engagement with the place it is located in", he said.

Mr Taylor criticised "middle-class student leaders banging on about compassion for working-class students being locked out of the (higher education) system", when there is "incredibly little noise" from student protesters or the media about the abolition of education maintenance allowance grants for the poorest students in further education.

Addressing the question "In what ways can and should higher education help to create a more equal society?", he said that "absolute social mobility has been assisted by the expansion of higher education", in that people have moved up into the middle class.

But Mr Taylor argued that on relative social mobility - the "likelihood of people moving up and down" - higher education had been "much, much less impressive".

He said that while he was part of the last Labour government, he had unsuccessfully advocated a policy that would have meant that "leading universities (had) to generate places in their universities for the top group of pupils at the most disadvantaged schools in the locality".

Mr Taylor backed the coalition government's proposals for student finance, saying the "biggest threat to opening up higher education" was the cap on student numbers, rather than students' willingness to pay higher fees.

He also called for universities to put forward their academics as "civic advisers" to help their localities handle public service cuts, and to "sweat their assets" by opening up sports facilities and libraries to the public as the cuts bite.

Mr Taylor recalled a conversation with a vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester - not named but likely to be Alan Gilbert, who died this summer.

He had asked how the university, which had just recruited the "world's leading expert on social capital", would use the appointment to help the city of Manchester.

Mr Taylor said he "may as well have asked Carlo Ancelotti (Chelsea Football Club manager) whether he was going to get the Chelsea players to go and play in the park on Sunday".

The impression given was that the University of Manchester was a "global player" above local concerns, Mr Taylor claimed.

Giving a critique of the presentation from the audience, Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, said Mr Taylor was "accepting a linear hierarchy of social class".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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