Social mobility is not just about moving to richer areas

Students from poorer regions who enter their local workforce after graduation should also be celebrated, says Sir David Bell

July 29, 2019
Wearmouth Bridge in Sunderland
Source: iStock/Harry Green
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

Credit where credit is due. The UK Department for Education’s recent publication of graduate earnings data by region was a welcome example of ministers and officials responding positively to constructive comment from the sector.

Usefully, too, there is an invitation to participate in the next phase of thinking around the publication of institution-by-institution data.

Much of the concern about the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset has focused on the perceived unfairness of making unadjusted pay comparisons between universities in different parts of the country. Given the high-stakes nature of this information in terms of rating universities’ contributions to social mobility, contextualisation is obviously important.

However, there is a wider debate to be had about social mobility and geography. Too often, discussion of social mobility focuses on students, usually 18-year-olds, from poorer areas having the opportunity to move away to attend high-tariff institutions – quite possibly never to return.

Underpinning that can be an arrogant assumption that some places are better than others – and not just for earnings – when it comes to living and working. But conflating social mobility with regional mobility risks masking the crucially important work that more locally focused universities play in enhancing their students’ life chances.

Two weeks ago, for instance, the University of Sunderland saw through its first cohort of nursing graduates. They all live locally and vary in age. Many have family, work and life commitments that mean they can’t just get up and leave, even if they wanted to. But every one of them has improved their life chances significantly by acquiring a highly valued professional qualification – all of them have secured nursing jobs in the city.

Or what about teachers? A full 97 per cent of Sunderland's initial teacher education graduates stay in the north east. It would be a disaster for the region if they didn’t, so we need to welcome and endorse their commitment.

Data show that in 2017-18, just 31 per cent of people working in Sunderland were employed in professional or managerial roles, compared with 39 per cent for the wider region and 46 per cent across the UK as a whole. If post-Brexit Britain is to be a success, more people in places such as Sunderland need to be available to work in such roles, and not to think of themselves as failing to “get on” if they stick around after graduation.

Indeed, the very fact that Sunderland is opening a new medical school is testament to the government’s recognition that there are so-called “cold spots” for doctor retention, not least in specialisms such as general practice and psychiatry.

As someone who has had a highly mobile career in the UK and beyond, I realise that I might be accused of pulling up the ladder of opportunity after me in calling for students to stay local. I would be the last person to deny others the right to choose where they live and what they do. I see the risk of mobility as being the preserve of the wealthy, further exacerbating social divisions. I recognise, too, that the concept of education is connected to the idea of widening horizons and moving beyond your previous experiences.

However, and not for the first time, I worry that many of those working in higher education – and in politics, for that matter – assume that their highly mobile lifestyle is the norm. You don’t have to buy the whole “citizens of somewhere/citizens of nowhere” rhetoric to think that we have not paid enough attention to the value of people going to university in the places they were brought up.

A lot of the existing evidence on the rich social mobility experience of graduates who stay local is powerful but largely anecdotal. We do need harder data to improve our understanding of the life premium added, for both the individual and the community.

But we all know that allegiance to home, family, community and place can be more powerful motives than a rootless pursuit of “opportunities” and salary hikes. The students who feel those pulls will never fall into the trap of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland.


Print headline: There’s no place like home

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Reader's comments (1)

I think this is definitely food for thought - if graduates stay and live and work in poorer areas it would have a beneficial impact on the whole community.