If you watched the game show “Play Your Cards Right”, you’ll recall that nine cards were randomly selected from the deck of 52 before being placed face down on the board. A contestant would then turn over successive cards, predicting whether each card would be higher or lower than the next. Why am I mentioning this? Because getting to college shouldn’t be a lottery like this for bright young talent who happens to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
Social mobility remains a crucial indicator in the creation of an egalitarian and vibrant society, as well as a healthy and inclusive economy. In my opinion, there are several types of social mobility. Economic mobility refers to the ability of citizens to move up and down the economic ladder – and one of these critical ladders is the ability of young people to attend university.
An economy driven by social mobility gives everyone the opportunity to aspire to prosperity. This can involve access to a wide range of education through hard work, as well as individual fitness on a larger scale. Someone who was born “poor” and comes from a seemingly disadvantaged background is not destined to remain stuck in this social class all his life.
An equally important term is social value. In the context of an organization, such as a university, it is an ongoing, long-term commitment to ‘do better’ by individuals, communities and arguably the environment as well. It is a desire that should be at the heart of an organization to create as much positive impact and as little negative impact as possible.
Last November, in partnership with the DfE and the Sutton Trust, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published a major study entitled “Which university degrees are best for intergenerational mobility? He used data on socioeconomic background and educational pathways related to labor market outcomes and wage earnings. On its website, The Sutton Trust states that its main aim is “to strive for social mobility from birth to work so that every young person – regardless of their parents, the school they attend or where they live – have the chance to succeed in life. As an organization, they have continued to work tirelessly to improve social mobility, including addressing access to higher education.
The IFS study – and a research note from the Sutton Trust – highlights the challenges faced by young people from less affluent backgrounds who attend university. He looked at the statistics of young people who completed their GCSEs between 2002 and 2004, who entered university from 2004 to 2006 and reached the age of 30 in 2019. Here are some of the findings:
• More selective universities offer the best chance of higher earnings, and access to these universities has improved over the past two decades. But those with high mobility rates can do more to improve access for the poorest young people. Improved access has no significant negative effect on labor market success
• Many Russell Group universities have high pass rates but admit very few FSM students, resulting in lower than average mobility rates. Queen Mary University of London is a notable exception, performing very well on both measures and leading the overall mobility ranking
• One of the biggest influences on mobility scores appears to be geography, with London in particular dominating the top rankings
• Significantly, while the role of higher education in social mobility is history as a consequence of wider educational inequalities, research offers a more positive picture of the impact that universities can have on the young
• Social mobility in English universities is to improve
• Courses with the highest mobility rates include Computer Science, Pharmacology, Medicine and Medical Sciences, and Engineering
The last point is particularly relevant. STEM Learning currently runs the Nuffield Research Internships (NRPs), which are engaging, hands-on research and development projects. In NRPs, talented Year 12 (or equivalent) students are placed at the heart of a UK host organisation, particularly in academic settings. They are a fantastic opportunity for eligible students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply the skills and knowledge learned at school while making a significant contribution to the work of university researchers and industry professionals.
Improving access and social mobility is not just a role for universities – it is about building relationships and opportunities for young people to see university research environments for themselves. It’s about meeting graduates, postgraduates, STEM ambassadors and other role models. These people may themselves come from disadvantaged backgrounds and can be catalysts for young people to consider studying STEM subjects. You can’t be what you can’t see, which is why role models play an important role in future social mobility. Seeing is truly believing. Social mobility, however, should not be about elite access for the privileged few, but broader progression for the many, as discussed in the Policy Exchange publication “Rethinking Social Mobility in the Age of leveling up”.
Back to ‘Play Your Cards Right’… by encouraging young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds to become more socially mobile and therefore helping them access university (with the help of initiatives like the NRPs), their journey becomes minus a lottery. Turning all playing cards face up gives students the best chance of achieving the highest level they can achieve through desire and achievement. It is therefore incumbent on ALL universities to have a strong position of social value, to enable unrelenting access to young talent, especially those from difficult and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Dr Ajay Sharman is Regional Network Manager for London and South East England at STEM Learning. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy (with a focus on biochemistry) from the University of Kent and is extremely passionate about working with companies across all sectors to support teacher CPD and improve outcomes in STEM subjects for young people. He is also a proud STEM ambassador.
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