Working-class representation matters. It matters in business, politics, the justice system, the media, in sport and in teaching.
But last week research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found some of England’s most prestigious universities are failing to boost social mobility by admitting too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds – with a knock-on effect on their job prospects and potential earnings later in life.
The IFS analysis found some of the country’s most selective institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, admit so few young people from disadvantaged backgrounds that their impact is far outweighed by other universities that recruit low-income students in greater numbers and help them into higher paid careers after graduation.
Researchers examined the school, university and workforce history of nearly one million young people in England who took GCSE exams between 2002 and 2006. They then tracked their careers until around the age of 30, constructing a social mobility index using the proportion of disadvantaged young people admitted to a university or course – and their later progression into a job in the top 20 per cent of earnings.
The results reveal a gaping hole in elite institutions doing their bit to help students from poorer backgrounds. Instead, low to mid-ranking universities, mostly in London, proved to be the best performers in admitting students from low-income families – with London’s Queen Mary University the sole example of a Russell Group institution to have an outstanding record in both admitting a high proportion of students who had received free school meals and boosting their career prospects.
The research is disappointing, but sadly not surprising. Universities have long been considered engines of social mobility, but the IFS report shows kids from poorer families are much less likely to get there in the first place. During the mid-2000s, just 16 per cent of free school meal students attended university, compared with 75 per cent of the privately educated.
Last week Sir Peter Lamp, founder of the Sutton Trust, which helped produce the research, called on universities to give candidates from low income backgrounds “a break” on the grades they need to get into university – highlighting that in many cases grades do not reflect students’ true potential.
Lamp makes an important point. Gaining an A* at A-level when you live in a comfortable home with supportive parents who are keen on education is an achievement, but imagine how hard it is to get an A or a B in a crowded house, without access to a computer or internet, while juggling caring commitments, part-time jobs, food poverty and other challenges students from low income families are often faced with.
A child who enters the world with no cultural capital, who doesn’t have a bookshelf at home, a desk in their bedroom, or a parent to take them to art galleries, but has still found themselves with a desire to pursue higher education deserves a seat at the table. They deserve the best degrees, with the best job opportunities at the end of them.
And society misses out when bright working-class kids aren’t given the opportunities they deserve. As the prime minister has demonstrated on too many occasions, privilege doesn’t always mean competence.