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To boost social mobility, we must first accept that it does not yet exist

As Staffordshire University launches a new widening access initiative, its Vice-Chancellor Professor Liz Barnes explains why she believes institutions like her own have a crucial role to play in making social mobility a reality.

Staffordshire University today unveils a new action plan to increase access to higher education and career opportunities, in partnership with former Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Justine Greening.

The Opportunity Action Plan, part of the Social Mobility Pledge initiative, sets out a series of ambitions that Staffordshire University will work towards with the aim of ensuring that more people are able to access higher education, and progress in careers, unhindered by their background or lack of connections.

If you are a proponent of equality, the merits of social mobility should be self-evident. It is the cornerstone upon which the ideals of equality are built, from access to education and healthcare to civil rights and women’s empowerment – and everything in between. Social mobility is equality of opportunity in action.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe one of the most important steps towards achieving social mobility is to acknowledge that it does not exist – or at least that true social mobility does not yet exist.

Whether at a local, national or global level, it is clear to see we are not born with equality of opportunity, which is why we must identify inequality in all its forms and work together as a society to level the playing field.

Having spent my professional career in a number of universities and having joined Staffordshire University in 2016, I have seen that when schools, colleges and universities embrace equality, diversity and inclusivity, they represent the perfect vehicles for social mobility because they offer nurturing environments in which people of all ages and from all backgrounds are empowered to break down barriers and achieve their full potential.

I have also seen, however, how educators can have the opposite effect. Some of us are fortunate enough to remember the encouraging words of inspirational teachers and lecturers throughout our lives, but others remember those who said they would not achieve their goals.

When you are constantly told you are not good enough to succeed, you start to believe it. Make no mistake, words of discouragement can have a lifelong impact too.

As Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Staffordshire University, and Co-Chair of the Stoke-on-Trent Opportunity Area with my friend and colleague Carol Shanahan OBE, I have witnessed first-hand both the transformative power of inclusive education and the deleterious impact its absence can have on people’s lives.

Many things can prevent us from accessing and benefitting from education and these factors are frequently connected to our background rather than our ability. All too often, we are judged on where we are from rather than what we can do.

Inequality of opportunity represents a particular challenge in social mobility ‘cold spots’ such as Stoke-on-Trent, where levels of child poverty and participation in higher education are amongst the worst in the UK. What’s more, these determinants extend into adulthood with approximately one third of our city’s workforce employed in low-skilled jobs, significantly above the national average. However, one thing of which I am absolutely certain is that it is never too late to start levelling the playing field.

Equality of opportunity sits at the very heart of Staffordshire University’s activities. Approximately 40 per cent of our students come from areas that are amongst the most deprived in the country, with some having experienced challenges such as homelessness and substance misuse. Many of our students are among the first in their families to go to university. Our role as a university is therefore to provide our students with the opportunities that their counterparts in other areas may take for granted.

One example that springs to mind involves a student who joined Staffordshire University in his early 40s. Having developed a drug problem at the age of 14, he had been fighting addiction – as well as its countless associated challenges – all his life.

Many in society may have viewed this person as ‘down and out’ but he worked hard, graduated from Staffs and now informs national policy on substance misuse and addiction. He is one of the many people I have seen transform their lives through education.

Yes, disadvantaged students require support but, most of all, they need the opportunity to succeed and for someone to believe in them.

We are working to integrate social mobility within the very fabric of our institution by skilling, enabling and empowering our students to pursue their own paths to learning and development so that they have the tools they need to operate autonomously as independent thinkers.

It is also key that more UK businesses step up their efforts in social mobility as this will also be important for our social and economic recovery. As the economy rebuilds, employers need to ensure they are creating more opportunities for people to raise their aspirations.  It is imperative that businesses are opened up to diversity and don’t discount their future workforce based on their background.

It was exciting to sign Staffordshire University up to the Social Mobility Pledge, a coalition of more than 450 businesses globally. For our institution, the pledge not only recognises the importance of equality of opportunity to our society’s long-term success but is also actively working to drive progress through outreach, access and recruitment. The prospect of joining forces with the Social Mobility Pledge team and more than 500 like-minded organisations to boost social mobility was simply too good an opportunity to miss.