Now the UK’s first professor of social mobility, Lee Elliot Major said that “in some ways, I’ve always been an academic on the inside”. But his route to the post at the University of Exeter has taken him on a circuitous journey outside academia during the 23 years since he completed his PhD.
Professor Elliot Major worked as an education journalist – including at Times Higher Education – and in science policy before joining the Sutton Trust, eventually serving as the access charity’s chief executive for four years until last month.
In that time, he became one of the UK’s leading commentators on university access and the author, last year, of Social Mobility and its Enemies.
“People ask, ‘What’s the common link?’ For me, it’s about straddling the divide between evidence and communication. It’s taking the evidence then trying to make that into a simple message people can understand,” Professor Elliot Major told THE. “My Sutton Trust role became more administrative…what this role allows me to do is go back to my roots in some ways and just speak more about the actual issues themselves, and do some actual research on these issues.”
And his roots on the issue of social mobility go back a long way. Having “effectively dropped out of school and lived on my own aged 16”, he eventually returned to college and became the first person in his family to go to university. His PhD, in theoretical physics, is from the University of Sheffield. “Education did make a big impression on me and my life,” he said.
After his time at the Sutton Trust, which has been criticised for focusing mainly on getting disadvantaged students into the most exclusive universities, Professor Elliot Major said that he was looking forward to broadening his remit.
“The trust is obviously an amazing organisation, but while it’s important that background shouldn’t determine who gets into the most selective university…I think social mobility is much more than catapulting a few talented young people to the very top of society,” he said.
In his new role, Professor Elliot Major will advise Exeter on access policy, support trainee teachers on raising attainment, and work with local schools on widening participation. There are signs that the university needs his expertise. Exeter’s rise up the league tables in recent years has sometimes run in the opposite direction to its record on access: last year, the share of first-year students who were from state schools fell by 3.5 percentage points, to 65.9 per cent.
The solution, in his opinion, is to focus on outreach activities that actually work. There has been “a tendency in the community, and I class myself within that, to try to improve participation by doing more and more, rather than [focusing on] what actually works best and for whom, [and] that is a weakness I want to address”, Professor Elliot Major said. “We’ve spent a lot of money on widening access but with very little debate about which bits work and, honestly, which bits we should stop doing.”
This will be even more important because Professor Elliot Major believes that a “perfect storm” is about to hit university access in the UK. The attainment gap at school between the most and the least disadvantaged students is likely to remain stark for some time, he said, while at the other end the least privileged are priced out of postgraduate degrees, which are increasingly important in the job market.
Then there is the review of post-18 education in England, bringing with it the risk of a cap on student numbers and an effective bar on students with lower grades entering higher education, via limits on student loan eligibility. Social mobility would “become even harder” if a cap were imposed, and grades would be a “blunt instrument” with which to judge students’ potential, Professor Elliot Major said.
“There are all sorts of clouds gathering, and I think we need to be on the front foot to say, ‘In an evidence-led way, we are going to try new approaches,’” he said.
Some of these suggested new approaches are set out in Social Mobility and Its Enemies, including a proposal that admissions to the UK’s most selective universities should be determined by lotteries among students who pass a grade threshold.
For its part, England’s regulator, the Office for Students, has set an ambitious target for universities to eliminate the gap in entry rates between the most and the least advantaged students within 20 years.
However, Professor Elliot Major is sceptical. “It’s good to have high aspirations, but my worry is that they are incredibly bold statements. I think some of that rhetoric is not realistic,” he said. “I say that not to be pessimistic, but because if you really want to do something about social mobility you have to do something about inequality outside education.
“Inequality and social mobility are inextricably linked. So if you’re really serious about social mobility, you’ve got to tackle the issues outside the university gates.”
Print headline: ‘Perfect storm’ ahead on access
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