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

2/3 Written By Chris Bayes.


The industry of Social Mobility

Over the course of the two past decades, Social Mobility has increasingly become intertwined with WP.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given it has been championed successively by New Labour and Conservative administrations and is easier to reconcile the below definition with the values of neoliberals and centrists than the concept of ‘Social Justice’:

“Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.”[1]

Social Mobility has almost become something of an industry.  Underpinning this is the Social Mobility Commission (SMC), an independent statutory body (an organisation created by an Act of Parliament).  The SMC itself a continuation of the body previously called the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.  Alongside the SMC, there exists a plethora of charities and organisations, which either explicitly or implicitly state support for Social Mobility as part of their mission statement. 

The following link https://socialmobilityworks.org/organisation-directory/ highlights the work of around 50 organisations, all of whom appear to be singing from a similar hymn sheet and many of whom work in partnership with widening participation teams within universities.

Given the apparently verdant nature of activity within this space, you might then be surprised (or probably not if you’re well-informed) that

“The UK has one of the poorest rates of social mobility in the developed world. This means that people born into low-income families, regardless of their talent, or their hard work, do not have the same access to opportunities as those born into more privileged circumstances.”[2]

Interestingly (perhaps worryingly for some active in WP), the latest SMC report ‘State of the Nation 2022: A fresh approach to social mobility’ (underneath a heading entitled ‘The Problem’) states “Widening access to university has not brought the dividends many hoped for, and has diverted attention away from the 50% that pursue other routes.”[3]

In a previous piece, I highlighted how the government’s mantra appears to be that certain courses and types of provision should be the preserve of certain types of people.  If you happen to be from a ‘disadvantaged’ background, they appear to be suggesting that skills-based learning to be the right educational pathway to take.”[4] 

The fact that the current government appears to be framing the achievement of a previous administration’s stated goal of “a university participation rate of over 50% among the under 30s.”[5] as part of ‘The Problem’ was highlighted in a 2020 speech by Boris Johnson.  The current PM firstly highlighted how “It is one of this country’s great achievements massively to have expanded higher education”.  However, he then went on to add that “we seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates” and questioned whether they (young people) were “ever given the choice to look at the more practical options, the courses – just as stimulating – that lead more directly to well-paid jobs?.”[6]  Given the utter decimation of a fully funded Careers service under the Conservative led administrations since 2010, Johnson’s question was perhaps a rhetorical one, but it appeared to be reflective of a shift in thinking towards a greater emphasis on vocational alternatives to HE study.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/social-mobility-commission/about#definition-of-social-mobility

[2] https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/about-deloitte-uk/articles/social-mobility.html

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1084566/State_of_the_Nation_2022_A_fresh_approach_to_social_mobility.pdf

[4] https://workingclassinwp.com/2022/07/22/vocational-education-reform-is-over-rated-and-t-levels-are-the-monster-it-created/

[5] Tony Blair, 2001

[6] Boris Johnson, September 2020

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