I read with interest earlier on today the news of the Social Mobility Commission’s report into access to higher education.
As I’ve said here before, improving social mobility is vitally important to fairness in our society and ensuring that wealth is both created and distributed more evenly. In other words, it’s not “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” which we as Liberals ought to be shouting about, rather, we should be arguing that the creation of a fairer society is the best way to a stronger economy. Only then does our unwavering support for the reform of our democratic and economic institutions start to make sense. I happen to think that this is the only way we can build a narrative which will differentiate us from all other parties come the next election, but I’m not expecting a call from Lord Ashdown any time soon!
Back to the report. One of its headlines is that admissions to the Russell Group universities from state schools, as a proportion of overall enrolments, is down slightly since 2002/3. However, there are an additional 1,464 attending from such schools as total enrolments have gone up by 2,900 during the same period. It’s this statistic which is used to justify the claim that the Russell Group universities are becoming “less socially diverse”.
However, the proportion of students in private education has increased dramatically since 2002/3 – as an examination of the Independent Schools Council 2013 census (pdf) demonstrates.
Against this background maybe the Russell Group universities aren’t doing quite so badly after all. I’d go so far as to say that when these changes are taken into account, the report’s claims start to look like the use of a dodgy statistic to justify the imperative of improving social mobility. Using dodgy statistics, however well-intentioned, really doesn’t help the cause of social mobility at all(*).
I don’t make a habit of agreeing with David Willetts, but his comment in response to the report that “getting a university education should be based on ability, not where you come from” is exactly what we should be aiming for. However, this does assume that equality of opportunity is provided to all students at school, regardless of the sector they were educated in.
At the moment, even with additional money going to less advantaged school students by way of the pupil premium, we’re a long way from such an ideal.
(*) The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the bar chart from the ISC is a little “dodgy” too, as it compares pupils in ISC schools across the whole of the UK against the general trend in pupils numbers in England.