Clegg’s phoney war on social immobility

by Susanna Bellino

David Cameron’s comments a few weeks ago about Oxford university’s lack of black students might have annoyed its dons and PR team but he made a valid point. Granted he skewed the statistics but the truth remains that only 27 black undergraduates – approximately 1% – made its undergraduate intake that year.

The results of a freedom of information request by David Lammy MP revealed, among other startling facts, that Merton College, Oxford, had not admitted a single black student for five years. And although it pains me to say it, my own alma mater doesn’t fair much better – despite its more liberal reputation, white students were more likely to be successful than black applicants at every Cambridge college except one.

These figures are in stark contrast to Oxbridge’s American counterpart, Harvard, where 11% of students were black. Affirmative action no doubt plays a large part in this but Oxbridge does run its own access programmes although – if rumours are to be believed – aiming these schemes at a comprehensive school in Hackney might better achieve social mobility than running them at Marlborough College.

For once, we can’t blame the coalition for something. Oxbridge’s unrepresentative undergraduate intake and the general trend of the lack of upward social mobility in the UK has long been an issue. When I went up to Cambridge in 2007, 57% of the student body were state school educated – a decent enough figure perhaps but we need to consider that in 1997, 55% of the student body were state school educated – hardly an improvement.

So, who’s to blame for this gaping inequality? Social scientists will point to a number of factors including economic circumstances and an entrenched class system that is forever perpetuated. Whatever the cause, surely policy must be formulated to achieve equality of opportunity since it can’t be left up to institutions to serve as engines for social justice. They’ve got enough on their plates trying to keep up with their American equivalents in achieving academic brilliance on the international stage.

The coalition, Nick Clegg in particular, seems keen to eradicate social immobility. In August last year, Clegg articulated his plans to “promote social mobility and the next steps” his government would undertake to overcome them. He declared his vision of good government :

“governing for the long-term means thinking not only about the next year or two, or even the next parliamentary term. Governing for the long-term means recognising that the decisions of one generation profoundly influence the lives and life chances of the next”.

And in early April, he launched the government’s social mobility strategy, a move which was overshadowed by the internship row.

So does coalition policy match the rhetoric?

Raising tuition fees, abolishing the education maintenance allowance (despite a half-hearted u-turn) and cutting Sure Start suggest that instead of encouraging social mobility, the coalition is placing more obstacles.

Tripling tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 doesn’t increase social mobility – it doesn’t even stagnate it. Granted universities that charge £9,000 are required to spend 10% of this income on access schemes for poorer students. But there is a real worry that pupils from the poorest backgrounds will be discouraged from applying. I left university with a £12,000 debt still largely unpaid. But a debt of £27k+ – who needs that hanging over their heads as well as the possibility that a degree – even an Oxbridge one – doesn’t guarantee you a job?

When the fees legislation was passed in December, we were promised that universities would charge £9,000 only in “exceptional circumstances”. But of the 50 or so universities that have announced their intentions, 35 intend to charge top fees, including a number of former polytechnics, and the rest will charge £6,000+.

So, if Clegg was as committed to improving social mobility as he would have us believe, maybe he shouldn’t have voted for an increase in tuition fees. Good intentions and positive rhetoric can only go so far and education has always been key in breaking through class barriers.

Maybe he now regrets entering into a coalition that has made it harder in an ever competitive world for a state schooled student to even dream of gaining a place at one of the world’s leading institutions. He should do, if he doesn’t already.

Susanna Bellino is vice chair of Kingston and Surbiton CLP and chair of Labour Friends of Italy

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2 Responses to “Clegg’s phoney war on social immobility”

  1. Derek Emery says:

    I wonder if US schools are as bad as UK schools in offering opportunities for the poor to get a leg up by being able to have a good education? Have US schools dumbed down like in the UK. If Havard is taking a much higher percentage of black undergraduates then either it is dumbing down its courses to make them more accessible to the less able or it has no problem is finding enough able black students with the educational background to be able to start a top level course.
    Its very noticeable that in the UK only the Arts lead professions are considered to be important i.e. politics, journalism and law. The science based professions never get a mention presumably because they are nowhere near as well paid and therefore of no interest to politicians. Locally I’ve noticed that the bulk of jobs requiring a science degree pay less than £40K with a high percentage paying less than £30K.

  2. Richard says:

    According to the figures on Oxford Univertsity’s website, the cheapest possible degree available for a student doing a 3 year course and from the poorest of households with an annual income of £16k and less, factoring in a fees reduction and non-reimbursable bursaries and grants, would be £27 500. A frightening debt burden to have hanging over your head when life has always meant making the most with little and parsimony is the order of every day. Should I have faced that prospect in 1984 in addition to my rational (others might say irrational) resistance to entering a world so far removed from mine, no way would my teachers have convinced me to apply to Oxford, let alone accept the place I was offered.

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