Is our Universities Minister really committed to “social mobility”?

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Michele Donelan MP, Minister for Universities since February 2020,  announced this month that social mobility isn’t about “getting more people into university,” and that too many institutions are giving out degrees that are a waste of money. Education Minister Gavin Williamson is spearheading this wider move, calling a societal preference for a university education “snobbish”and pledging to invest more in Further Education (FE) – an investment which will, I’m sure, be welcomed by FE since funding was slashed by the Conservatives in recent years. Leaving aside the fact that we appear to now have a Universities minister that wants fewer people in university, they are both correct, in theory, in that university shouldn’t always be seen as the “better” option for everyone. 

Michele Donelan. Photograph: gov.uk

But I’m curious as to how this shifting of support will play out in practice, and who it will hit the hardest.

Donelan’s voting record on social issues includes voting in favour of various cuts to welfare spending, more restrictive regulation of trade union activity, phasing out secure tenancies for life, and against raising taxes on banks (on eight occasions). Although this is only a selection, I think it’s fair to take these examples into consideration when assessing whether she’s committed to building a fairer society. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she doesn’t long for a return to a Dickensian class system. Regardless of her intentions, will this drive to effectively discourage as many people from university just end up hampering social mobility*? 

Widening Participation and Degree Value

The UK’s Office for Students mandates universities to have an Access and Participation Plan, setting targets to enrol a diverse body of students as well as improve attainment, continuation and progression to further study or employment. The work undertaken by Outreach and Widening Participation teams across the country has led to more socially enriched campuses. As Donelan has pointed out, she herself is the first in her family to attend university. 

University students

She is, nonetheless, concerned that universities have only focused on getting students “in the door” and then offered degrees with poor graduate prospects. It is absolutely right that access shouldn’t be universities’ only priority. But it feels a little unfair to spend over a decade marketising and commercialising higher education and then chastising universities for trying to get numbers as high as possible, regardless of access targets. 

Many universities, including the post-92 group and other smaller colleges, may struggle to compete with Russell Group universities or Oxbridge when it comes to graduate prospects, but they do address this and have introduced specific commitments around tailoring degrees for employment, still offering a huge amount of transferable skills.

However, it’s tough out there for graduates and non-graduates alike, and all sectors of education can only do so much to prepare young people for a struggling and unsustainable labour market. The “gig” economy and level of unstable employment are issues that the government has failed to acknowledge or address, and efforts to increase the national living wage have been met with hostility from many across government and business groups. 

The sorts of jobs which are theoretically heralded by this government, such as nursing, have not been supported in practice – this government has, for example, scrapped nursing bursaries, failed to equip the health services for the pandemic, and voted against a pay rise for NHS workers in 2017 -only reversing this decision following recent pressure. 

It is true that there are some students who don’t feel their degree was good value for money. However, the majority of students believe their overall investment was. And this assumes the only value in a degree is monetary, something which UCU’s Jo Grady contested when she called on ministers to stop the “bogus idea” that we should “allow labour market outcomes to determine how we value university education.” 

Incidentally, it is worth noting that Michele Donelan and Gavin Williamson both have social sciences or humanities degrees (as do I) – fields looked down upon by the pro-technocracy ideologues within government for the reason that they’re not as “useful” subjects, but which have still produced most government ministers, and many other leaders across our society.

It also remains the case that those with an undergraduate degree still earn a higher average salary than those who don’t.

Who is Higher Education For? 

Even if the employment landscape were different, can the government control who chooses to go to university without simply reducing the opportunities? 

Michele Donelan maintains that she doesn’t want people’s background to determine their choice of education: however, there has been little mention of addressing socio-economic inequality within schools, which would be the first real step. The government also removed vocational qualifications from the school curriculum for those students who did want to pursue something different from an earlier age. Apprenticeships, meanwhile, seem to be Williamson and Donelan’s silver bullet, but they are just not as popular as university degrees. The government’s apprenticeship scheme has not only fallen in uptake since it began, but has increasingly failed to produce the desired outcomes. 

From the other angle, I’m sure those of us who did attend university came across students who were expected to apply based on their socio-economic background, but who actually weren’t much suited academia themselves. And yet, I don’t predict a huge swathe of upper-middle class sixth formers opting for vocational training instead. 

London Metropolitan University. Photograph: Flickr

The reality is that the universities being referred to within the subtext of these ministers’ criticisms are the post-1992 universities giving out “Unconditional” offers, or very low conditional offers. These organisations have a much higher proportion of students from “Widening Participation” backgrounds, and also tend to be more ethnically diverse (in 2016/17 there were more Black students at London Metropolitan University than all of the Russell Group universities’ undergraduate students combined**). A reduction of support for these institutions, or reduction of Access targets at any university, will mean a de facto reduction in the number of students from these backgrounds attending university, regardless of how the government tries to spin this.

*There’s a valid discourse promoting the idea of social justice over social mobility – but for the sake of argument, let’s presume social mobility is our aim.

** The number of Black students entering Russell Group universities through UCAS in 2016/17 was 3,005. The amount of Black students at London Metropolitan University in the same academic year was 4,700

Katie O’Reilly-Boyles is a graduate management trainee, just finishing her secondment to the University of Roehampton and returning to SOAS in September, where one of the things she’ll continue to work on is the “Corridors of Power” initiative. She also graduated from SOAS in 2014 with a BA in History. 

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