Speaking at a Sutton Trust conference in London today, Mr Miliband said that sending more young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to university remained important, but there were other ways of improving their life chances.
“Social mobility must not be just about changing the odds so that kids from poorer backgrounds make it to university,” he said. “That really matters, but the debate has been too narrowly focused.
“We should reject the snobbery that assumes the only route to social mobility runs through university – as if there is only one pathway to success.
“We must have a better offer to those young people who choose not to go university.”
He said such narrow-mindedness was reflected by an educational system that treated vocational subjects as second class.
This had been exacerbated by the coalition government’s decision to downgrade the value of an engineering diploma from the equivalent of five GCSEs to one.
“Ministers should show as much respect for young people whose skills secure them an apprenticeship as those who win places at university,” Mr Miliband added.
“The next Labour government will take those skills seriously. We need to ensure vocational education is seen as just as much of a gold standard as academic education.”
He also criticised the coalition for trebling university tuition fees, scrapping the educational maintenance allowance and closing Sure Start centres.
“Tackling social mobility is a huge mountain to climb and the last Labour government took some important steps. But now Britain is sliding backwards,” Mr Miliband claimed.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, will address the conference tomorrow and is expected to announce a new “student premium” for undergraduates from poorer backgrounds.
Worth about £2,500 a year, the premium will be available to students who were eligible for free meals while at school, according to a report in The Guardian.
They will also need to achieve at least a C grade in A levels across a core of academic subjects – English, mathematics, history or geography, and a foreign language.
The premium is part of a new social mobility review from the coalition that is due to be published on 22 May, the newspaper reported.