Social mobility: Universities need to do more says Alan Milburn

students at a lecture Only 10% of first year degree students are from low-income areas

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Alan Milburn is putting universities at the heart of his blueprint to increase social mobility and break down barriers to success.

Universities find that position uncomfortable, even though they support the aim.

Figures suggest just 10% of first year undergraduates in the UK are from poor areas and at top universities, the proportion will be lower.

The latest report from the former Labour minister says teenagers from the richest 20% of households are seven times more likely to go to a top university than those in the poorest 40%.

Alan Milburn was asked by the government to look at the issue of social mobility and make recommendations.

His latest report focuses on universities in England. The most controversial suggestions are about lower grade offers to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and a call for universities to fund teenagers to stay in school or college.

'Blame game'

But Mr Milburn's report makes clear that it is not just universities which should do more to boost achievement among the poorest in society and says it is time for the "blame game" to stop.

"The blame game - where universities blame schools, schools blame parents and everyone blames the government - has to end," he told reporters.

It is clear, and recognised by Mr Milburn, that many young people have little chance of going to university because they have not even got basic qualifications.

Start Quote

University was certainly something I always wanted to do, but Oxford was not something I had ever dreamed of”

End Quote Mirella, Oxford undergraduate

Four out of ten 16-year-olds in England do not get five good GCSEs (A* to C) including maths and English - the basic measure on which school league tables are based.

Many universities are doing what is called outreach work with secondary schools - holding open days or summer schools for students or going in to talk to pupils so that they consider working towards a university place.

But some experts argue that catching youngsters at 15 or 16 might be too late and that the answer is to raise aspirations early, so pupils see university as an option, make the right choices in terms of subjects and put in the effort needed to get there.

Some universities, such as Liverpool, target primary schools with this in mind.

Through its Professor Fluffy programme, which involves a "cuddly toy professor", it works with primary schools to introduce youngsters to the idea of higher education.

And Nottingham Trent University holds "Family Fun Evenings" for 10 and 11-year-olds from poorer areas and their parents to introduce them to higher education.

University College London has sponsored an academy in Camden (called the UCL Academy), offering master classes, summer schools and mentors as well as giving pupils an idea of "life at university from a young age", it says.

And the University of East Anglia is involved with the City Academy, Norwich.

Mr Milburn says all top universities should follow suit and sponsor academy schools in disadvantaged areas.

Oxford calling

Mirella, from north London, has just started a history degree at Oxford University and says good teachers - and visits to Oxford and Cambridge - helped her to raise her sights.

"University was certainly something I always wanted to do, but Oxford was not something I had ever dreamed of," she said.

The 18-year-old says she widened her ambitions after being taught by two Oxford graduates at her school in Hornsey. The teachers were placed there under the Teach First scheme which aims to put high-flying graduates in to state schools in poor areas.

graduates Access to top universities is under the microscope

"It was the atmosphere some Teach First teachers created in my school," she said.

"We had a "Gifted and Talented" club organised by one of our Teach First Teachers. One took us on trips to Oxford and Cambridge.

She made it clear to us how much work we needed to do and how important our GCSEs are.

"That's where a lot of state school pupils are let down. If you have good grades you can apply anywhere."

Mirella says her teachers encouraged her to read widely and increased her "political awareness", which she believes helped her succeed in her Oxford interview. She was the first pupil from her school to get an Oxbridge place.

While a push from the school end can clearly make a difference, a "pull" from the universities themselves is also thought useful.

To this end, universities in England already have individual targets on admitting more students from poorer homes and under tighter controls brought in with higher fees in England, have to show they are spending money "widening participation" - whether through grants, money off tuition fees or helping raise awareness about universities.


While universities want to to increase the number of pupils from poorer homes coming through their doors, they baulk at anything which could be seen as taking away their independence - their freedom over whom they admit and how they spend their money.

The suggestion that they fund a replacement for the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a grant for teenagers scrapped by the government in England, has gone down badly.

As for universities varying the grades students need to get on courses depending on their background - and the use of what is called "contextual data" - some already do that, but the sector will resist any attempt to bring in an across-the-board rule on it.

Mr Milburn said research suggested that around 40% of institutions used this data, and more than 60% planned to in the future.

That is an area which sparks intense political debate and prompts accusations that universities are involved in "social engineering", denying places to other better-qualified students.

Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group of Universities says universities already look at individual circumstances.

"Grades at GCSE, A-Level or their equivalent are always hugely important, but they're never the sole criterion," she said.

At Oxford University, pupils who appear to be succeeding in challenging circumstances are "flagged up" and are more likely to be called for interview.

Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group of universities said the report was an "important contribution" and that higher education did have an important role to play in aiding social mobility, but some of the recommendations gave "real cause for concern".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I worked in HR for 25 years and was involved in ther recruitment of graduates. Whilst some of them were matched to jobs which matched their degree others with say a history degree ended up in finance. The most worrying aspect was because they had a peice of paper stating they had a degree they thought they were better than everyone else. Well educated school leavers were by far a better prospect

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Milburn misses the point here in my view.

    Surely it would be more sensible to address the inconsistencies in teaching standards at secondary school level rather than accept students who've achieved lower grades.

    If you've not achieved the grades that make a university education possible, you shouldn't go - especially when it easily cost you £30k+ - isn't that setting you up to fail?

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    We would be better off with well-trained workers than with yet more graduates.

    I suspect 'social mobility' will involve yet more money going to children of large, benefits dependent, no doubt largely ethnic minority etc families, and actually cause yet more resentment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    @98.The Ace Face

    They may have been created for that purpose but all that universaties are these days are vessals for the far left to spread their beliefs to gulliable young adults.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    101. Daily Fail
    unaffordable levels you only ever have to pay back if you can well afford them.
    You are misinformed, I guess that would be your daily fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    The poshos who run government don't want the "plebs" to do well.

    Hence the raising of tuition fees to unaffordable levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    I believe today opportunity is there for most. I came from working class state education to become a graduate professional. The problem at the lower end of the social scale is that parents either don’t see, support, encourage or aspire their children to take the opportunities available and the poor State early years education in disadvantaged areas doesn’t help give them the start they need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Universities are for people whose chosen careers or passions require specific abilities. They are for the academic elite. The problem is that in this country the quality of primary/secondary education - and hence the production of such an elite - tends to be strongly related to parental income. THIS is what needs fixing before we tackle any inherent problems with tertiary education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    "Universities are not there 'for' social mobility. They are there to create new knowledge, and teach the next generation of researchers, professionals and citizens how to thing."

    No they're not, they are there to teach people how to think for themselves, something which governments are very afraid of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Social mobility is the responsibility of the individual, not the universities or the state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Forcing unis to take less qualified students will only worsen the uni, making it spend time bringing students up to speed instead of forging ahead on teaching. I saw that when I was at uni.

    The solution is to make high schools better, so poor students get high quality teaching and thus better grades. We should be improving schools, not bending unis out of shape for something not their fault.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    You could almost argue a Degree can be a disadvantage.

    Plenty of employers today are ruthless in selection from applications. A hell of a lot will discard a degree candidate if it's less than 2.1.

    You go to an employer with a 2.2 or 2.3, your automatically out of the race. Far to many others will have a 2.1 or first.

    So if you create more graduates, it's diluted even more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    What is social mobility? Milburn seems to be likeRomney and not interested in the other 47% who don't go to University. Some go up others go down. In biology we call this adaptation. Baby boomer Milburn adapted to 1970 social mobility, through unions to Westminster. I went to University to but found bankrupcy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Research has shown that creating a system of essentially "private" universities (i.e. where fees are not government-subsidised in any helpful way) does nothing for students' quality of education. And the resource drain they create also results in lower quality education for students with predominantly state-funded places.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Whilst I agree that we should not be aiming for fully 50% of each cohort attending University to claim this has nothing to do with socio economic background is pure bunkum.....

    .....the firgures speak loudly enough - all schools should be a well funded as Eton et al & all new parents should have access to fully funded Sure Start Centres.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    The tories don't want social mobility, you only have to see the comments of their supporters on these and other message boards to see that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Universities are not there 'for' social mobility. They are there to create new knowledge, and teach the next generation of researchers, professionals and citizens how to thing. They are not a luxury but a necessity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    The BBC, like the rest of the establishment, needs to stop and take a deep breath on this issue.

    It seems only ever to talk about education in terms of 'social mobility', not in terms of its ability to provide a well-trained workforce.

    The real issue is whether sending so many people to uni is a good idea. And why is being 'working class' seen as a problem?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Not everyone wants to become socially mobile. People from all backgrounds can be proud of them. The misconception that being from a higher social class will make you happier is just plain wrong. Let's celebrate the best of all social backgrounds. Most of the happiest people I know are those that aren't obsessed with rising up the ranks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    As one from what today is called a sink estate, my passport out came from getting to a grammar school. I didn't go to uni but did study part time while working. I later employed many engineering graduates in my career.
    1. You have to fight to get on- it's a competition.
    2. Waste of time intervening at uni entrance- sort the schools out first.


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