UK vice-chancellors are coming from increasingly representative educational backgrounds on the whole, but remain disproportionately likely to have attended an independent or grammar school, and are increasingly likely to have attended the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
University leaders are among the leading figures whose upbringings were examined by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission for a report published on 25 June. Based on an analysis of about 5,000 people in high-ranking positions across 37 professions, Elitist Britain finds that the UK’s most influential people were more than five times more likely to have been to a fee-paying school than the general population (39 per cent compared to 7 per cent).
Compared to other areas, a “relatively low proportion” of vice-chancellors were educated privately, with 16 per cent going to an independent school, down 4 percentage points from 2014, the report says.
A third went to grammar schools (33 per cent, down 11 percentage points in five years) and another third to comprehensive schools (34 per cent, up 13 percentage points since 2014).
Almost a fifth (17 per cent, up 2 percentage points compared with five years ago) were educated outside of the UK.
In terms of university, 51 per cent went to a Russell Group institution (down 2 percentage points since 2014). Nearly one in five – 19 per cent – went to Oxford or Cambridge, a 6 percentage point increase since 2014.
While there is a “large amount of focus” on who goes to university, “much less scrutiny” is given to who goes on to study for PhDs and then can take up an academic position, the report says.
Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds may find the route to working in academia blocked by the increasing requirement to work precarious short-term contracts and to move frequently in the UK and internationally, it says. Working class academics have spoken out about “feelings of alienation and a perception of having outside status” within universities, the report adds.
“Vice-chancellors have significant influence over the culture of their institution, including efforts around diversity, inclusion and widening participation, and making sure these values are championed throughout the university,” the report says. “Such issues are of particular importance given how unrepresentative the student bodies of many top universities are when compared to young people overall.”
Dame Martha Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said that it was “time to close the power gap and ensure that those at the top can relate to and represent ordinary people”.
The “key to improving social mobility at the top”, said Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, was “to tackle financial barriers, adopt contextual recruitment and admissions practices and tackle social segregation in schools”.
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