'Access for all' stalls mobility

31st July 2009 at 01:00

The expansion of higher education from the 1990s has generally been heralded as a positive and inclusive development. It is often seen as undermining the old elitism of universities, giving access to non- traditional groups in society and leading ultimately to greater social mobility.

However, it has recently been observed that social mobility in the UK has declined in the last decade - despite the changes in higher education. As the next batch of students applies for new university places, it is worth considering why "access for all" has not had the impact on inequality that some hoped it would.

From the outset, unlike the expansion in education in the 1960s which came on the back of the post-war economic boom, the growth in student numbers in the early 1990s emerged at a time of relative economic stagnation. Following the Robbins report in 1963, the number of 18 to 19-year-olds attending university increased from 6 per cent to 14 per cent. In comparison, between 1987 and 1997 there was an increase from 14.5 per cent to 33.4 per cent - a third of the age group.

From being a provision for the educational elite, higher education under the Conservatives became a mass activity. This raised concerns about declining standards and "bums on seats", where universities were seen by some as holding bays for young people at a time when youth employment was declining.

However, there has remained a positive sense about the expansion of higher education, especially by "progressives" who maintain that, despite the difficulties with new universities, growing numbers and tight resources, there is an egalitarian argument for the expansion of higher education.

It is certainly true that the expansion of university places has resulted in greater "equality" between the sexes and more access for groups such as the disabled and some ethnic minorities. However, arguably the greatest inequality in society - class - has been relatively unaffected by the changes. While more working-class people go to university today, the massive increase in middle and upper-middle class people also going to university now means that the relative proportion of young working-class people going to university has not changed.

Indeed, the proportion of working-class students in 1900 is the same today. Also, students from poorer backgrounds are predominantly in less prestigious universities, arguably getting less prestigious (and useful) degrees.

Perhaps a final irony of the expansion in education is that, at a time when certificates are needed to do an ever-increasing array of jobs, "egalitarian expansion" has benefited more middle-class young people than their working-class counterparts. Whether you are attempting to start a professional career or are looking for promotion in the area of work you are in, there is an increasing expectation that you must have a degree.

This hoop-jumping is something middle-class students are often prepared to endure. But equally intelligent, and perhaps more dynamic, working-class young people appear less inclined to follow this "educational" (or should that be "certificational") route. Consequently, one of the unintended outcomes of the expansion in higher education could be that "access for all" and the "degree paper chase" have actually reduced social mobility in society.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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