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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Universities’ efforts to improve social mobility should focus as much on working with employers to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for the workplace as they do on recruiting them, a new report suggests.
There needs to be more collaboration between universities, employers and schools if targets for widening access to higher education and the professions are to be met, delegates heard at the inaugural conference of social mobility charity The Bridge Group.
A report from the Group says that while universities play a “critical” role in advancing social mobility, without support from employers “gains in higher education policy risk being annulled after graduation”.
Research carried out by the Group concludes that the issues of social mobility “begin early, including a student’s choice of university, and continue throughout their degree”.
It suggests that early disadvantage is not necessarily erased by a place at a good university and once there, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to take up the kind of extra-curricular activities that are attractive to employers on CVs.
“They are less likely to make use of careers services, or apply for internships…and once graduated, the job market they are seeking to enter may be skewed against them,” the report says.
“Successfully entering even some of the most prestigious occupations does not place an upwardly mobile graduate on a level footing with their peers.”
Recently, the Prime Minister complained the UK’s leading universities were not doing enough to recruit students from poor and ethnic minority backgrounds. There are new targets for widening participation and a new social mobility task force led by Universities UK.
By 2020, the target is to have doubled the number of students going to university from disadvantaged backgrounds and to increase by 20 percent the number of black and minority students.
Universities responded by saying they had been working hard to widen their intake and that much of the problem was down to poor schooling or poor advice given to pupils.
At the conference, the President of Universities UK and Vice Chancellor of Kent University, Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, said it would be a “real challenge to meet the Prime Minister’s targets, but they are achievable”.
She said there would need to be an annual 8 per cent increase in the entry-rate for the least-advantaged 18-year-olds to achieve this – approximately 50,000 people.
Professor Goodfellow also said the slump in the numbers of part-time and mature students impacted on social mobility.
The report says there has been a big emphasis on “input” into universities – attracting disadvantaged students - and that more thought now needs to be given to “output” – so that graduates leave with the skills, confidence and knowledge to get into and flourish in good careers.
Professor Koen Lamberts, the Vice Chancellor of York University, told the conference: “Challenges of social mobility do not stop when a student comes to higher education.
“Universities increasingly have to think beyond admissions and take a life-cycle approach.”
This could involve giving bursary students opportunities for placements as they are “less likely to have parents to help them or be able to afford an unpaid placement”, he said.
The Bridge Group (a charity and policy association which promotes social mobility) is calling for more collaboration between universities, employers, schools, charities and government as well as a regional approach.
It praises new developments among employers such as “name-blind” and contextual recruitment and the “removal of academic screening”.
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