What is the role of higher education in boosting social mobility?

September 22, 2020

by Alison Breadon Education Leader

Email +44 (0) 7740 894817

As they start an academic year like no other, how can universities ensure that they’re doing all they can to improve social mobility? Despite increasing focus on the role higher education can play, universities have yet to fully deliver on their ambitions or potential when it comes to social mobility. Sir Michael Barber and Alan Milburn joined our recent Higher Education Governor webinar to share their insights on this topic and these key points stood out.

Experience is as important as access
This summer’s disruptive exam results period has put access to universities in the spotlight, but improving social mobility isn’t about access alone. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are still more likely to drop out. Universities need to focus on ensuring that students not just get a place but also thrive, participate fully in the university experience and progress into fulfilling careers. Providing students with tailored support will be critical as will refocusing on what more universities can do to prepare students for life after university.

Focus on what works
There is growing data and understanding about what really works when it comes to shifting the dial on social mobility. Universities need to consider the full range of social mobility tools. For example, bursaries may be effective for the individuals that receive them. But in terms of overall impact, a more effective approach might be building stronger partnerships with schools.

Not all barriers are financial
Financial barriers are of course significant, but they’re not the only barrier when it comes to social mobility. Academic and social support is also needed. Recent research from the Office for Students has also highlighted the issue of digital poverty. During the COVID-19 lockdown 18% of students were impacted by lack of access to a computer or laptop and 52% were negatively impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection.

Local collaboration is key
If we’re going to improve social mobility, connections need to be strengthened between universities and schools, between higher and further education, and between universities and regional businesses. The important role governors play in this was highlighted in particular, as were the different approaches that have been taken by different universities in line with their strengths and the local context. This includes partnering with local football clubs to motivate students who might not otherwise have considered going to universities, focusing on local schools or working closely with major employers.

Responding to the COVID-19 context
COVID-19 has brought specific challenges and opportunities for universities when it comes to social mobility. On the one hand, the exam results process has meant that many have got into universities that they may not have otherwise got into. That’s a tremendous opportunity for those students. But universities need to be prepared for the additional support such students may need. This is on top of the fact that most students, whether they’re school leavers or returning to their second or third years, haven’t had much formal teaching in the past six months. As Sir Michael put it, universities need to ensure they have a “fast start” to term and address the needs of students individually, not just in general terms.

At a profoundly challenging time for universities, there’s a risk that social mobility slips down the agenda. However, through these times more than ever, universities need to stay committed to their access and participation plans and demonstrate their value in contributing to a fairer society. Universities have the capability to make a real difference that can lead to large scale change and have a responsibility to act on social mobility.

by Alison Breadon Education Leader

Email +44 (0) 7740 894817