Wednesday, 3 April 2013

social mobility? what's not to like?

Last week I attended a conference on higher education and social mobility.  The holy grail of the 'graduate job' and the fast disappearing 'graduate premium' have encouraged the assumption that HE is good for social mobility.  The only way is up.  
As someone researching part-time, mature students in higher education I was looking forward to some critical discussion of the term.  After all, social mobility might mean something different to a 40 year old student changing career direction than to a 21 year old first time entrant to the labour market.   Should all students (and staff) subscribe to the overwhelmingly economic emphasis placed on social mobility in policy documents and institutional publicity? 
There were some thought provoking contributions.  Professor Chris Brink VC  of Newcastle University argued for a more lateral conception of social mobility which embraced its moral and social dimensions as well as economic; civic and public good as well as private benefit.  Social mobility he said encompasses university as a destination and as a point of departure.  It was an interesting perspective, idealistic perhaps.  I wondered how a VC of a new university might have approached the subject.  Claire Callender (Birkbeck, Institute of Education) reported on recent research demonstrating that part-time learners acquire AND deploy the significant benefits they gain from HE in their working and non-working lives while they are studying as well as afterwards.  She argued that the lower financial but wide-ranging, non-financial benefits of part-time study means that part-time students should attract greater subsidy.  There was also a stimulating presentation from Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker as part of the Bristol Paired Peers project, showing the stratification of social mobility across different universities and the ways in which middle-class students mobilise all the capitals: economic, social, cultural available to them to compensate for their attendance of 'lower-status' universities. 
There was also plenty of rhetoric and evidence of an unquestioning approach to social mobility, not to mention a couple of presentations which were not about social mobility at all, but simply added the term to their presentation title....(nothing new there!)
And today a further dimension to the social mobility discussion - the presentation of a new 7-social class model ranging from elite to 'precariat'...  More on this once I've taken the test to discover where I fit....!

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