Wednesday 20 January 2010

Social Mobility

With Labour and Conservative parties both trying to appeal to the 'middle class', social mobility is a phrase which we have been hearing more frequently. The implication is that 'social mobility' (generally interpreted as the ability to move up through the social classes rather than down, although in theory it can mean either!) is inherently a 'good thing'.

And so it is, for those able to benefit. And by drawing on a wider pool of talent and ability, society as a whole also gains from the process. And yet…

Social mobility for the few held up as though it was an indicator of a society which is increasingly classless is not the same as greater social equality for the many. Picking out the most talented and enabling them to 'get on' is not the same as developing the talent and ability of all to the maximum.

When I hear Labour or Tory politicians talking about social mobility, I do really wonder whether they understand these points, and what, if anything, they are offering to the many rather than the few. And even for the few, there is a danger that their actions do not match their rhetoric.

I was listening to an address by the Vice-Chancellor of one of our universities recently, and he made the point that, in recent history, the greatest single driver of social mobility has been a university education. Making that opportunity available to more and more of our young people is, in that context, one of the most important pieces of social engineering that we have ever undertaken as a society.

Yet, whilst Governments seem to be praising the concept of social mobility, their policies seem designed to restrict the one proven approach to enabling that. Introducing tuition fees was, in my view, one of the most retrograde steps ever taken by government in this context. To pretend that it has not impacted the likelihood of young people from poorer backgrounds attending university is flying in the face of logic and experience. But the direction of policy seems to be to continue to increase the level of fees, likely to deter even more people from applying.

Recent suggestions that the number of places in universities will be cut is another indication of a return to a form of elitism which benefits the more well-off rather than the poorer in our communities. It was disappointing indeed that the Welsh government felt that it had no option ultimately but to follow the English lead over fees. I hope that they will resist following any English lead in reducing the numbers of places.


Anonymous said...

There is another, rather simpler problem with the way social mobility is talked about by Labour/Tory.

That being that for every working class kid that 'moves up', they would surely be taking the place of some in a higher class?

If Oxford or Cambridge radically altered the makeup of its intake, with far less private school kids getting in to study, then what would be the response from the middle and upper classes?

Finally, I always shudder at how there is a concrete way of 'getting on', which involves closed door old fashioned patronage. But what has happened to the genuine sense of getting on - like joining a company fresh out of school as an apprentice then ending up as a CEO? Of getting a trade via an apprenticeship, rather than doing a Sociology degree then going to work in a call centre.

Personally I think too much of what we deem getting on, particularly degrees, is based on a rather wishy washy reality.

More of our young people need to be offered actual skills, based on business and economic need, not parked on a desmond 2:2 in skateboard studies.

Spirit of BME said...

"move up through the social classes" love those words ,you must have got that out of Dickins.
Humas are a herd type of animal and class and elite come naturally.If these people are to survive ,they have to express their superority and others have to accept it.
I dont think Universities are the answer, I think its the start of your educational life that matters.I had private eduction ,which my parents paid for. It was called Ysgol Sul and there we were taught that all are equal and judge people for how you find them to be ,not what they claim to be. These great principles ,what made me such a troublesome member of Blaid.