Minding the Gap

Britain is now one of the most unequal countries in the developing world and the gap between rich and poor continues to increase. In his recent Salford Lecture Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, set out five policy levers to reverse this trend. Several of his proposals require action by universities. What, then, should we be doing?

Firstly, its important to understand the key issues, stripped of Westminster rhetoric. The Social Mobility Commission has made a significant contribution to synthesising this evidence. For universities, the key indicators are inter-generational; we are the gatekeepers for the professions and a wide range of high-value jobs, and who we let in – and keep out – has a significant effect on access to opportunity. In Britain, only one in eight children from low income families achieves a high income as an adult; a much higher inter-generational replication of circumstances than countries such as Finland, Australia and Canada.

Looked at from another angle, the Commission found that more than 50% of those in elite professional positions – judges, senior military officers, senior public servants and diplomats, members of the House of Lords – attended independent schools, in comparison with 7% of the population as a whole. As Milburn put it in his presentation, “few people believe that the sum total of talent in Britain resides in just seven per cent of pupils in our country’s schools – or for that matter less than one per cent of students in our universities. The institutions that matter appear to be a cosy club. The data is so stark, the story so consistent, that is hard to avoid the conclusion that Britain is deeply elitist”.

This is why fair access –widening participation – continues to be so important. At our university 43% of our entering students come from working-class backgrounds and 22% live in disadvantaged areas. One in ten of our students was eligible for free school meals at the time of taking GCSE exams. Enabling social mobility in this way is a core part of our mission and our planning for the future, and must remain so.

Secondly – and this is a key insight from Alan Milburn’s work – the nature of inequality is changing.

All current polices for widening participation are based on the notion of a “poverty line”. There’s a significant literature on whether this should be an absolute or a relative measure and on how it should be set. But whether the $2-a-day benchmark for absolute poverty applied across Asia and Africa, or the eligibility criteria for free school meals that is extensively used as a proxy for relative poverty in Britain, these are thresholds, and if families are above the threshold then they are not considered poor.

Of course, providing the opportunity of breaking through the threshold of absolute or relative poverty remains essential. But the Commission’s work has shown that, now, the nature and extent of inequality in Britain is significantly affecting families in work and with incomes above the poverty line:

“Although entrenched poverty has to be a priority – and requires a specific approach – transient poverty, growing insecurity and stalling mobility are far more widespread than politicians, employers and educators have so far recognised.  Too often – in political discourse and media coverage – these issues are treated as marginal when in fact they are mainstream. Poverty touches almost half of Britain’s citizens at some point over a nine-year period and one third over four years. The nature of poverty has changed. When Labour came to office in 1997, less than half of the children growing up in poverty lived in a household where one adult worked. Today by contrast child poverty is overwhelmingly a problem facing working families, not the workless or the work-shy. Two-thirds of Britain’s poor children are now in households where an adult works. In almost three-quarters of those households someone already works full-time. The principal problem seems to be that those working parents simply do not earn enough to escape poverty”.

Again, there are specific implications for universities. One of the consequences of the new student fee regime that was introduced in 2011 has been a sharp decline in access by part-time students, who are invariably older and who need either to re-qualify because they have been cut out of the labour market by shifts in the structure of the economy, or because they did not have the opportunity for further study after leaving school. Today, it is close to impossible for many older students to fund their continuing education.

This autumn, more students may be starting at British universities than ever before. But this is a world for 18-year-olds. Many talented but older people will remain trapped in low-value employment, at or below the minimum wage, or in zero hours contracts and part-time positions, particularly in the new and expanding service industries. It is a significant shortcoming in current student funding policies that older, part-time students are now largely excluded from educational opportunities. In turn, this omission will depress Britain’s economic competitiveness in developing a skilled workforce.

What should we be doing? We have little direct influence over national higher education policy, which is why its important for us to continue to make the argument in partnership with other universities, and to support work by organizations such as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. But we are able to work with others across Manchester and the Northwest in ensuring that pathways into education are aligned with the imperatives of social mobility. This is why our developing partnerships with Further Education Colleges are so important, ensuring that people can get access to flexible opportunities that recognize their aptitude and potential and counter the pervasive elitism of British society.

Beyond this, we need to look far more closely at our curricula, at what we recognize as knowledge and why, at how we enhance learning, and at how we enable part-time and “interrupted” learning. I’ve found that, across our university, people are full of ideas about these things; hopefully, policy advocacy by Alan Milburn and others will help put in place the policy and funding frameworks that will make the realization of these ideas a practical possibility.

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reports are available here.

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