Social Mobility and Equality Stagnated in Universities

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In recent years, there has been a growing concern that universities are becoming increasingly utilitarian in their focus, negatively impacting social equality.

 

There is no doubt that changes to the funding of universities in England, which have seen an increase in tuition fees and a reduction in government support, have played a role in this. But it is not just the financial constraints that universities are facing that is causing this shift in priorities.

 

There is also a growing belief amongst policymakers and employers that the primary purpose of university education should be to prepare students for the workplace. This has led to an increased focus on so-called “employability” skills, such as teamwork and communication, at the expense of more traditional academic disciplines such as the humanities.

 

The result is that attending university is becoming increasingly unattractive for many people from working-class backgrounds. Not only are they faced with the prospect of large debts, but they are also told that their chances of getting a job at the end of it all are not good.

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It is no wonder that social mobility in Britain is stagnating. The latest figures from the Social Mobility Commission show that just 6% of young people from working-class backgrounds go to university, compared to 38% of those from professional or managerial families.

 

If we want to revive social mobility in Britain, we must ensure that universities are open to everyone, regardless of their background. That means ensuring that the humanities are as important as “employability” skills. Only then will we ensure that university education is truly open to all.

 

Greenwood’s story is just one of many told by Jonathan Rose in his classic The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. This book is a history of the struggles of working people to educate themselves, from early autodidactism to the Workers’ Educational Association. For those within this tradition, the significance of education was not simply in providing the means to a better job but in allowing for new ways of thinking.

 

“Books to me became symbols of social revolution,” observed James Clunie, a house painter who became the Labour MP for Dunfermline in the 1950s. “The miner was no longer the butt of jokes … He had suddenly acquired a new dignity.”

 

If we want to revive social mobility in Britain, we must ensure that universities are open to everyone, regardless of their background. That means ensuring that the humanities are as important as “employability” skills. Only then will we ensure that university education is truly open to all.

 

What can the government do to promote social mobility?  Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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