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Social Mobility, Higher Education and Driving with the Handbrake on.

For disadvantaged students, the prospect of a debt  30 years has to be balanced against securing greater earnings. To most students, Social Mobility means a better house, job or even a new car better than that of their parents. For poorer students, progress means having a house, any job and maybe a car.

A report in The Financial Times (FT) last week ‘UK social mobility at risk as progress stalls’ [1] prompted some thought about looking again at what Social Mobility actually is and how it is progressing. The FT relied heavily on a recent OECD report ‘A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility’ [2] that reviews the position of countries around the world with regard to Social Mobility. The basic argument of the FT is that the UK has made considerable progress in Social Mobility and cites the introduction of tax credits and the minimum wage as the main drivers of improvements made since 1990. However, in the last two years there as been a slowing of the progress. Any gains made by those moving higher up the income scale are now at risk because of the precarious nature of current employment for many people. Add to this the move to making planned welfare cuts and the progress will be undone. Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation [3] is quoted: “ if there is less absolute mobility, the losers feel aggrieved… at the bottom a pound lost upsets more that a pound gained increases it”. This is a stark warning for our society as dissatisfaction in the lack of equality and fairness boils over. However, the role of improved access to Higher Education and the more equitable recruitment behaviours of employers is cited as positive, but clearly these are only two components of the equation. 

But what does the OECD report say?

The report, ‘A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility’, is the result of a comprehensive study of the social mobility trends across many countries worldwide. It seems that the UK has made only modest gains from what was a very poor position in 1990. However, much of the data used is up to the early 2010s and not much beyond. It cannot reflect the changes and dangers reported by the Financial Times.
Social mobility is defined by the OECD as “a multi-faceted concept”. It can be seen either as ‘inter-generational’ mobility between children and parents or it can been seen as ‘intra-generational’ mobility that tracks the life time advances of a single person. It is assumed that people tend to compare how they live at present times with how they grew up and how their parents lived. This can be measured by simply determining the income changes between generations and within a generation. The so called ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ is noted as a good way to make comparisons between countries (see TEFS 4 May 2018 Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid [4]). This demonstrates a clear relationship between earnings inequality and earnings between generations and places the UK as one of the poorest performing in this respect amongst the developed nations. However, it is correct to say that this situation is improving. In terms of
changes in social class status, it appears that GB is very similar to
25 other OECD countries between 2002 and 2004. (Figure 1). In relation to earnings, mobility in the UK has done marginally better than 15 other countries (those in the EU plus
the USA). The UK has shown a slight improvement, measured over four years, whereas the others have shown a slight decline between 1990 and 2010 (Figure 2). Logically, those that are in the bottom earnings quartile can only stay where they are or move up and the UK has in the recent past shown some improvement. Similarly those at the top quartile have only one way to go, down. Yet they largely stay where they are. But it would be complacent to conclude from this that all is well now or into the near future and the Financial Times are right to bring this to our attention.

What are the drivers of social mobility.

The strength of the OECD report is that refers to and analyses in detail the many factors that affect social mobility. These are distilled down to five areas where they make detailed recommendations.

They are:
1. Planning to reduce social divisions in regions and across cities.
2. Enhance progressive tax systems to limit wealth, tax avoidance and inheritances
3. Family policies that mitigate the effects of disadvantages in early childhood
4. Public Investment in health services
5. Education measures that promote equality of opportunity.

In seeking to generate a mainly graduate economy, the UK has focussed great attention onto access to Higher Education. However, other measures must go alongside this for change to be effective and there is a major challenge ahead still.

What are employers doing to help?

Last week also saw the publication of the top 50 UK employers with regard to measures being taken to enhance equality in their recruitment and work practices.

The Social Mobility Foundation Social Mobility Index 2018 [5] came out on the 11th July and highlighted how the top ranked employers are taking positive action to improve social mobility in the workplace. Amongst various measures, some are screening applicants without seeing the name of the university that an applicant has graduated from. This means that school exam grades would become a key factor in making a decision. To compensate for this, 27% of the employers put the school grades of the candidates applying in the context of the academic performance of the school or college the applicant attended. This mirrors calls for the top universities to do that same when selecting candidates and sets out a valid way to do this fairly for all. In combination, these are profound changes that will affect social mobility for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is hoped that all employers will adopt these measures and create a fairer employment market.

The role of universities.

It immediately becomes apparent that there are many factors associated with education at every stage that must come together to improve the chances of individuals. Only one of these is the provision of more places on higher education courses. The removal of a cap on university places in England has of course led to the provision of more places at universities that keen to attract further funding. This coincided with a move away from government financial support to a fees only system. However, this has been extrapolated to suggestions that increasing fees is itself responsible for improved social mobility. Nevertheless, it is clear that the numbers of students in Higher Education has increased greatly over many years before then and since. Despite a dip in numbers after fees were raised to £9,000 pa there

has been an inexorable rise in the numbers of students (Figure 3). This has been accompanied by the tragic decline in part-time student numbers that means fewer opportunities for many of those seeking to improve their lot later in life. Data has been gathered by UCAS, HESA and the ONS that shows a record number of full time students are attending university at this time. These data are not so easily accessible to many people and require some effort in making the analyses; particularly when making comparisons between different types of institution (this will be the subject of a later TEFS Blog). Universities UK provide one of the most accessible overviews of the situation [6] along with reports to the House of Commons [7]. A recent report from The Higher Education Policy Institute looks carefully at the projections up to 2030 [8]. The current numbers are stabilising due to a down turn in the overall population of 18 year olds. However, this will rise again and present a further challenge into the near future. Other analyses include those of the BBC [9] that provides an overview of the effect of increased fees. These analyses indicate that students from lower income backgrounds have increased in numbers at universities in total. However, they are still much less likely to attend university; particularly the leading universities that their better off peers favour and there remains a stubborn gap [10]. The combined data hides another persistent problem. Whilst the overall figures indicate that obtaining a degree on average leads to greater earnings, there is a wide variation in earnings for different degrees and students from lower income backgrounds end up earning less [11]. The existence of loans for fees and maintenance funds also has a deterrence effect on such students [12]. Added to this is the effect of fewer students from lower income backgrounds entering the leading universities [13] where they might expect a higher earnings potential. Although addressing the situation in the USA, the 2018 text by Robert Samuels: ‘Educating Inequality: Beyond the Political Myths of Higher Education and the Job Market’ [14] describes a situation that is not hard to imagine how it might play out the same way here. He explores the myths surrounding the notion that obtaining a college degree always leads to social advancement and better paid jobs. It is argued that college degrees do not in themselves create good jobs. Without the generation of more and more good jobs, students enter into debt whilst competing for a relative decline in the number of better paid jobs. The argument does not stress that the ongoing research developments in universities can lead to new industries and hence the hope for more jobs, but the arguments are valid for the majority of students as they progress. The result is that all of these influences act to slow down the progress of overall Social Mobility in the UK.

The accelerator and brakes that control social mobility.

The OECD adopted the metaphor of an elevator to describe the movement of social mobility up and down. In terms of most countries, this is a reasonable metaphorical conclusion. However, in the UK it appears that social mobility, at least until recent years, is advancing slowly. Therefore, the more appropriate metaphor for the UK would be a vehicle moving forward. It can be stopped and it can accelerate but hopefully there is no reverse gear. However, it could also be driving forwards with the handbrake on.
Figure 3 illustrates what these effects might be in the UK context and cover only some of the myriad of factors that serve constrict progress or allow it to run on freely. 

Figure 4.
The perspective of would be students from low income backgrounds causes them to exercise a high degree of caution. Any one of the factors operating alone in the brake category could be enough to stop any further progress. But for some there are multiple factors in play. The prospect of a debt to be paid over the following 30 years has to be balanced against greater earnings. To most students, Social Mobility means a better house, job or even car than their parents. However, for the poorest students, progress means having a house, any job and maybe a car. But there is also the realisation that there are no family assets to fall back on in the long run. Therefore, the choice of degree becomes a very important decision based upon their circumstances, aversion to taking a risk without a ‘safety net’ and fear of over extending themselves. With no family support many students have to acquire funds through part-time work in term time and/or well paid vacation employment to survive. This has to be balanced against diverting time for studies and forgoing a social life. These factors act as if the handbrake has been left on and progress is slow and requires more energy. Measures to accelerate their progress must therefore include adequate maintenance grants and advice on applications and throughout the degree studies. The measures would also lead to releasing the handbrake and propelling the UK faster forward.

The conclusion is that progress is now being made in addressing the deep rooted social inequalities in the UK. This is at the expense of a huge student loan debt of almost £3 trillion that is expanding fast. Whilst students in degree courses might not end up paying off all of it themselves in time, all of the tax payers will have to foot the remaining bill in the end. This will include the students themselves through general taxation. By concentrating on a graduate economy and improved access to Higher Education, the improvements will affect nearly 50% of the population that have this opportunity. However, we should not forget the other half of the population that have aspirations and cannot qualify for a university place.

Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 


[1] Financial Times 12 July 2018. ‘UK social mobility at risk as progress stalls’.

[2] OECD A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility. June 15, 2018

[3] Resolution Foundation.

[4] TEFS Friday, 4 May 2018.Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid.

[5] Social Mobility Foundation. Social Mobility Index 2018.

[6] Universities UK. Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2017.

[7] House of commons briefing report February 2018 Higher education student numbers

[8] HEPI Report 105. March 2018. Demand for Higher Education to 2030. Bahram Bekhradnia and Diana Beech.

[9] BBC 10 charts that show the effect of tuition fees.

[10] WONKHE Looking fair and wide on university access. 26th Mar 2017


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