Labour may risk jeopardising the considerable social advances of comprehensive education if it allows universities to introduce variable student fees.
Researchers from the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University speculate that high-status universities will be swamped by middle-class students. "In such circumstances, social fluidity would at best remain unchanged and could start to worsen for the first time in at least half a century," Cristina Iannelli and Lindsay Paterson state in a CES paper, Does Education Promote Social Mobility?
So far, Scottish Executive ministers have pledged not to follow the pattern of pound;3,000 annual student fees due to be introduced south of the border. But the one-off student endowment north of the border, paid back steadily after graduation, will rise to pound;2,154 The researchers report that analysis of household surveys shows that educational expansion has benefited all social classes equally without reducing social inequalities. Those from middle-class families are still significantly more likely to gain an upper secondary qualification or a degree than those from working-class backgrounds. "Overall, the gap has not changed," they conclude.
They state: "The effect of individuals' social class background on entry into the professional and managerial social classes is strong and significant. The highest educational attainment of people originating from middle-class families only explains part, not all, of their advantage in entering occupations with the greatest prestige."
The effects of class have been mediated by education, but the trend is slowing. Entry to the professional and managerial classes was more meritocratic in the 1950s and 1980s, for instance, and the highest social classes continue to maintain their advantage in the employment market.