Friday, 8 July 2011

'Top' universities and social mobility


A good eye-popping statistic is often worth a thousand words. Here's one: five schools or colleges send more students to Oxford and Cambridge than the 'bottom' 2,000 schools put together. And four of those five institutions are expensive private schools.

Good on the Sutton Trust for crunching the numbers - and for revealing just how divided educational provision really is in modern Britain. Or England, we should say - for access to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Queen's in Belfast is nothing like so socially exclusive and institutionally concentrated. The Trust does admirable, conscientious and rigorous work encouraging young people to apply to 'top' universities. It organises summer schools that help to familiarise young people with the idea, and de-mystify some of the Brideshead nonsense that still surrounds English Higher Education.

But there's a problem with their concept of social mobility. It focuses on what we might call extreme movement - to declare an interest, trajectories similar to that of the current writer. But the move from a low-income household to Oxford (above) or Cambridge is highly unusual. Even if it became much more widespread in terms of Oxbridge numbers, it could still represent only a tiny fraction of the 'disadvantaged'. So although the Sutton Trust's aims are entirely laudable, wouldn't we be better throwing the net wider and focusing on the figure for all children from low income backgrounds going through to any sort of HE? Some of the Million+ institutions currently protesting bitterly about the Government's White Paper have done massively important work in this arena which is in danger of being forgotten in debates like those on this morning's Radio 4 Today programme, which invited a representative from the Russell Group to comment on what was going 'wrong'. Perhaps much is going 'right' elsewhere in the university sector?

In fact, it is - but the results are seen most clearly among exactly the set of universities that are about to be squeezed as the government removes numbers caps on the Russell Group and on FE colleges charging less than £7,500 for annual tuition. So there may well be a few more bright young people from less traditional backgrounds going to (say) Leeds, Durham and Southampton. But social mobility via Higher Education is likely overall to remain static at best.

What a shame.

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