‘Juxtaposed with U’ – The problem with Social Mobility and Levelling Up

3/3. Written by Chris Bayes.

“talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not” and seeks to redress this “giving everyone the opportunity to flourish.”

The ‘Brave New World’ of Levelling Up

At a recent NEON Summit on Regional disparities in widening access and higher education’s contribution to levelling up, one speaker (Stephen Pomfret, Make Happen) highlighted how 2022’s Policy Paper ‘Levelling Up in the United Kingdom’ featured minimal references to Universities, Further Education and zero references to Higher Education.  The Levelling Up agenda claims to be about challenging and changing the fact that whilst “talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not” and seeks to redress this “giving everyone the opportunity to flourish.”[1]

Following the collapse of the supposed ‘Red Wall’ at the 2019 election, Boris Johnson thanked traditional Labour voters for lending the Tory party their votes to secure a sizeable majority enabling him to ‘Get Brexit Done’.  He pledged to repay their trust through reforming the Tory Party, the political landscape and the country to revive the fortunes of ‘left-behind’ communities in post-industrial towns situated largely (though not exclusively) in Northern England.

In fairness to Johnson (something I’m not often guilty of being), his ambitions of 2020 being ‘a fantastic year for Britain’ were somewhat derailed due to a Global Pandemic, but his own ineptitude and arrogance undoubtedly exacerbated the severity of the impact on the UK (especially England).  The pandemic highlighted his hypocrisy to genuinely levelling up with evidence of grade inflation for public-school students being prevalent during the pandemic[2] .  This was coupled with the fact that many children living in the very communities ‘Levelling Up’ was purported to support had to rely on the campaign led by footballer, Marcus Rashford to access food[3] and workers who had been labelled as ‘unskilled’ months earlier by Priti Patel and worked continually to keep the country going received a ‘Clap for Heroes’, rather than an actual reassessment of their value and a pay rise.  Lastly, a recent IPPR study highlighted how despite Johnson’s rhetoric, public spending in the North continues to lag behind that of London.[4]  

Given ‘Levelling Up’ is explicitly linked to Johnson, one questions how much (if any) of the policy will remain moving forward.  The Daily Mail approved continuity candidate, Liz Truss is being billed as that candidate to ‘build on what Boris Began’[5], but given the constant shifting sands of policy since 2010, this remains to be seen.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-the-united-kingdom

[2] Another omnishambles? Inequality and A-level results in 2021 – Sutton Trust

[3] ‘Protect the vulnerable’: Marcus Rashford’s emotional letter to MPs | Manchester United | The Guardian

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/af661dc9-7500-4447-890e-700f9ac9a731

[5] Daily Mail, August 3, 2022

The juxtaposition between the two

What is equally troubling to me is the fact that ‘Levelling Up’ should on the surface be juxtaposed with and provide a challenge to the predominant narrative of ‘Social Mobility’.  Social Mobility and the projects that champion it appear to be about little more than getting working class young people to play ‘The Apprentice’, dress like a businessperson, be mentored by someone from a similar background and progress into a role at FTSE 100 Company.  This is a tried and trusted SM trajectory and one which appears to encourage young people to believe that to become socially mobile, they must become middle class and leave behind any vestiges of a working-class upbringing.

‘Levelling Up’, on the other hand purports to be about genuinely improving the life chances of all within ‘left behind’ communities.  Given the emerging evidence, my initial scepticism of this policy does not appear to be unfounded.  What I fear will happen is just an extension of the more troubling elements of the SM agenda.  Third sector organisations and ‘elite’ universities peddling a mantra, often led by working class young people made good, parachuting back into the community they’re from (but have ironically left behind) offering a pathway out for a selected few.  The fact that Michael Gove served as ‘Levelling Up Secretary suggests a bittersweet irony at play, see Gove here when he used to be Scottish suggesting his countrymen are seen as by civilised Londoners working in the professions as “unattractive creatures”, who do little more than “beg for money”. [1]


Working class people and communities have long suffered from engagement with HE in this way (from a perceived position of deficit).  It is sadly very rare that a University genuinely engages with the impoverished communities within its locality as an equal partner.  A recent episode of ‘The Open Circle’ podcast appeared to offer some insights suggesting that WP should be about “listening as much as speaking”[2] and when we do speak to working people, we should try to do so in a way they understand and offer provision that is genuinely appealing to them.  Until we do this, ‘Levelling Up’ will be little more than what is currently, the latest in a long line of soundbites, devoid of any substance or meaning.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCyMPBI8Z2Y

[2] https://open.spotify.com/episode/4nmWHBhxpqS2qbNrWYRLUw?si=1cc06b4273f541a3

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