Five reasons Clegg can’t stand on his social mobility record

Alex Hern runs through the government’s record on social mobility, and argues Nick Clegg’s minor success today doesn’t undo the damage he’s caused so far.


Nick Clegg will today hail the hundred companies who signed up to his compact on social mobility, saying that it is a major step towards:

“Ending the ‘who you know, not what you know’ culture.”

Clegg will doubtless call back to his claim of August 2010 that:

“Our determination to fix the deficit is matched by our determination to create a more socially mobile society.”

But the government’s record on social mobility isn’t any more rosy after this initiative than it was before. For every small positive policy, it has five negative ones tucked away. So let’s look at the record.

1. Tuition fees

Without a doubt, the impact on social mobility of the government’s tuition fee policy is profoundly negative.

It is highly likely to reduce the number of applications from poorer students, as the Guardian reported:

Cambridge University fears it will attract fewer students from the state sector next year, despite government expectations that universities charging £9,000 in tuition fees would “dramatically” increase their intake from disadvantaged communities.

A university source told the Observer there were even concerns that the proportion of students enrolled from the state sector could drop next year, as it did in 1999 when fees were first introduced, and in 2004 when they were increased.

It also appears to have reduced the number of applications from mature students, who tend to be from poorer backgrounds, as well as leading to strong regional variations in favour of richer areas.

The Guardian wrote in November:

While applications from candidates in the south-east are down by just over 8%, those from the East Midlands are down by 20% and Yorkshire and the Humber by more than 17%.

In fact, when the government introduced an incentive to universities to reduce fees, it resulted in institutions cutting student support budgets to fund fee waivers.

As we reported:

The effect of a fee waiver is small and delayed. It could mean that the graduate will be able to stop paying back their loan at 39 rather than at 41, for instance.

This contrasts with the student support money, which is being used to pay for many of these fee waivers. This is money set aside for helping the poorest students survive through their degree. It cannot be offset, and for many students if it runs out, they have to drop out.

It is no wonder that Universities UK responded to the changes by saying:

UUK believes that these proposals may inhibit social mobility by reducing choice, and minimising institutional flexibility over admissions decisions.

2. Workfare

We’ve reported before on the case of Cait Reilly, who is currently suing the government over the legality of forcing her to stack shelves at Poundland. As well as the dubious legality and ethics of the policy, the case also highlights the damage it deals to social mobility.

Before she was told she had to take up a placement at the supermarket, Reilly was volunteering at the the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Because she did not have the resources to do this without claiming JSA, she has now been denied an opportunity available to someone who can afford not to.

For a young geology graduate, work experience at a museum is far more likely to lead to a good job than work experience in a Poundland. But this experience is no longer available to those who are forced into workfare.

3. EMA

By replacing the educational maintenance allowance with the flawed discretionary learner support fund, the government harmed the prospects of young people who now might not enter further education, as we reported:

Lecturers and teachers in more than two-thirds of sixth-form and further education colleges say that changes to Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) are ’adversely affecting recruitment to the college’.

The IFS, reporting on the difference between EMA and its replacement, wrote that:

If students must apply for the bursary after enrolment, then they will not know, when applying for a place in post-16 education, whether they will receive a bursary – and if so, how much. This could have an impact on their decision to stay on in the first place.

No wonder that Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the UCU, said:

The government can say all it likes about being committed to social mobility, yet the reality doesn’t square with the rhetoric.

4. Sure Start

Despite Cameron’s pre-election promises, the government slashed funding for the sure start program by over ten per cent following the election.

As the New Statesman explained:

For a government that is ostensibly committed to social mobility to refuse to protect Sure Start is remarkable.

Policymakers have long looked to schools and universities to narrow class differences but neuroscientists have since shown that the early years, when brain development is at its most rapid, offer the best chance to improve the life chances of the poorest.

Scandinavian countries, which have invested heavily in children’s services for decades, now enjoy the highest rates of social mobility in the world.

5. Private Universities

One of the flagship beneficiaries of the government’s liberalisation of the higher education ‘market’ has been A.C. Graylings New College of the Humanities. This new university aims to “rival Oxbrige”, but only if you have £18,000 a year to spend on the fees.

As we wrote at the launch:

This move should be critiqued as a bad deal for the taxpayer and a backward step for social mobility – albeit a nice little money-spinner for those involved – as the concept of ‘private wealth and public squalor’ is imported into our university sector. All this for the sake of creating little more than a salon and intellectual finishing school for the super-rich.

As Sally Hunt, general secretary of the lecturers’ association, the University and Colleges Union put it:

“At £18,000 a go, it seems it won’t be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance.”

Clegg’s scheme taken on its own is positive, but the deputy prime minister cannot divorce himself from his own record on social mobility. His government has been inarguably regressive in this area, and no spinning will undo that.

See also:

Will 2012 see the first university bankruptcy? – Alex Hern, January 8th 2012

2012: The year ahead for young people – Alex Hern, January 7th 2012

Academic super-group are more like intellectual mercenaries – Kevin Meagher, June 7th 2011

EMA replacement doesn’t make the grade – James Mills, March 31st 2011

Cameron: Sure Start budget “going up”; the reality? Sure Start is under threat – Daniel Elton, February 9th 2011

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