Social mobility debate ‘too focused on elite universities’

The UK’s social mobility debate is too narrowly focused on a “small number of elite universities” and needs to be “dragged out of the 1970s”.

May 14, 2014

That is the argument set out by the University Alliance, a mission group of 22 universities, in a report published today under the title “Closing the gap: unlocking opportunity through higher education”.

The report criticises the rhetoric of the Sutton Trust, which has published reports about the “Missing 3,000” young people with high A-level grades who do not go on to “leading universities”. And the Alliance also describes the Russell Group’s hostility to the recently announced expansion in student numbers as a “backlash against widening participation”.

Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, said he was “pleased” that the report “challenges the notion that only a small number of universities offer the high-quality degrees that enable social mobility. On the contrary, excellence and opportunity are found throughout the sector.”

The Alliance says: “The debate on social mobility needs to be dragged out of the 1970s to recognise the full breadth of routes to success and the huge diversity of opportunity in a global, technology-rich graduate employment market.”

The Department for Education has previously attracted criticism for publishing data on schools showing how many of their pupils progress to Russell Group universities.

The Alliance notes research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which found that once A-level grades and social background were taken into account, going to a Russell Group university does not boost graduate earnings any more than going to a former polytechnic.

“While a small (and shrinking) number of traditional professions recruit from only a select group of universities there is evidence, once you control for prior attainment and family background, that attending an ‘elite’ university is not inherently ‘better’ for the student than attending any other university in terms of their future earning potential,” the Alliance report says.

Among its recommendations, the report urges that there must remain “no cap on university student numbers”, arguing that those most likely to be excluded by a cap will be from disadvantaged groups.

Student opportunity funding, which aids access and retention for disadvantaged students and has recently been cut by the government, should be increased.

The report also recommends that universities “do everything they can to engage with a diverse range of employers” to offer opportunities for students and graduates, and that the National Careers Service be boosted “by ensuring it is well resourced to work in partnership with HEIs, schools and employers”.

The final recommendation is that “a lifetime loan allocation” be introduced “to support re-training and re-skilling in line with international best practice”, benefiting postgraduates and mature students in particular.

“We recommend that this is an income-contingent loan that is repaid after graduation and that low earners are protected but that the cohort as a whole repay in full. In other words, this is a non-subsidised loan system,” the Alliance says.

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