Who should drive the engine of social mobility?

There will always be a political temptation to charge universities with improving a school system that leaves some students underprepared

August 4, 2022
Boys playing on bus shelter on run down council estate; Bradford UK to illustrate social mobility
Source: Alamy

The extent to which higher education can be expected to single-handedly deliver equality of opportunity is a tricky issue for a sector that wants to be able to make an inspiring offer to would-be students but does not want to bear all the blame for the lack of advances in social mobility. That is even more true when higher education participation is at historic highs and UK universities spend £250 million a year on widening-access schemes. While some universities, particularly in less affluent areas, position themselves as “engines of social mobility”, more selective institutions protest that recruiting more students from poorer backgrounds would risk setting them up to fail due to problems in the school system.

But politicians are unconvinced that universities should be able to get off the hook so easily. Shortly after returning oversight of universities to the Department for Education upon becoming prime minister in 2016, Theresa May announced plans to force English universities to set up a school or sponsor an existing “underperforming” one as a condition of charging fees above £6,000. In her speech, she referenced the University of Birmingham’s free school, opened the previous year. May foresaw universities ultimately being required to sponsor “thriving school chains in every town and city in the country”.

As our cover feature sets out, US universities are also being looked upon to support local schools and facilitate a more seamless transition to higher education. And there have been several successful initiatives.

But do universities really have the expertise or the bandwidth to get heavily involved in schools? University of Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson dismissed May’s plans as a “distraction”, saying: “We have no experience in running schools. There are many wonderful teachers and headteachers throughout the country and I think it's, frankly, insulting to them to suggest that a university can come in and do what they are working very hard to do.”

The Brexit black hole into which policymaking was plunged post-referendum consumed May’s plan, but last November, then universities minister Michelle Donelan announced a plan to require English universities to “improve outcomes for disadvantaged children by driving up education standards in schools and colleges in the local community”. Specific measures were not mentioned, but “providing tutoring services” was suggested.

Another idea, articulated in 2019 by former public school and grammar school head Martin Stephen, is for universities to “become involved again in the examination system” to combat the competition among exam boards that he saw as driving down standards, leaving poorer students ill-prepared for selective universities. He also suggested that access initiatives should be targeted earlier: “Minds are often made up by the age of 14; schemes need to start with 11- and 12-year-olds, or even earlier.”

Indeed, according to Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, whose recent book on universities’ role in addressing inequality was featured in Times Higher Education, universities might even consider lobbying for more expenditure on early years provision since “compensating at later ages for the effects of early inequalities in children’s treatment and opportunity is more expensive, less effective, and more limited in reach than preventing the inequalities in the first place”.

Whether Donelan’s policy will survive the latest Conservative leadership contest is open to question. Frontrunner Liz Truss is a former equalities minister, but her 2020 speech in that capacity announcing a “fight for fairness” mentioned universities only in the context of endorsing then education secretary Gavin Williamson’s plan to introduce post-qualification admissions on the grounds that poorer students’ grades are more likely to be under-predicted. That plan was dropped after Williamson was sacked, but Truss suggested last weekend that she wanted to revive it. She also plans to offer all students who receive three A*s at A level an automatic Oxbridge interview.

How much that will do for social mobility is open to question. Truss has controversially claimed that she herself got to Oxford despite going to a Leeds comprehensive whose pupils were “let down by low expectations”. And she has said that the school spent so much time teaching about “racism and sexism [that] there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write”. The fact that universities, too, are repeatedly bashed by the right about “wokeism” leaves it open to question whether Truss would see them as the solution to such alleged failings in schools.

Then again, while ministers cherish their ability to impose their own agendas on schools, the idea of being able to blame university leaders for any spluttering in the engine of social mobility will surely remain tempting.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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