Social mobility or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Two islands, two very different outlooks. This summer I was in Singapore where virtually everyone I spoke with from taxi drivers to headteachers accepted the mantra that Singapore as a small island lacking natural resources depends on human endeavour for its success. The government and the Singapore people accept that maximising the talents of the population is the key to socio-economic success.
Contrast the Singapore approach with government thinking in Britain. UK politicians seem to be following a different agenda, and rather than focussing on talent maximisation they prefer social engineering.
Social mobility is a challenging concept to define and can only be measured over long periods of time; moving up the socio-economic ladder takes decades of education and employment and focusing on one rung of the ladder like university entrance can be misleading. Yes, graduates earn more than non-graduates, but as increasing levels of graduate unemployment show, a degree is no longer a guarantee of a better career. The focus on university entrance as the key to social mobility also overlooks the fact that the majority of 18 year olds don’t enter higher education, nor would it be good use of public money or their time for them to do so. Attempting to address social mobility through higher education access is a policy that misses its primary target. It is also a policy that may not work for those who do go to university. Awarding university places to students without the usual grade requirements can mean admitting students on to a course when they lack the necessary prior knowledge and skills to make a success of their degree. Far from promoting social mobility, such an approach can results in students who lose self-confidence as they struggle to keep up with peers and end up dropping out of university. Real social mobility can only be achieved by improving parenting, education and training for all young people from 0-18. This is time consuming and expensive, but it does work as Singapore’s passion for talent maximisation and its consequent socio-economic growth shows.
Playing around with university entrance requirements will excite middle class interest but it is a side show from the main event. Good sixth formers do get in to good universities, and to be honest whether the likes of Laura Spence end up at Oxford or Newcastle University has minimal long term impact on the economy, society, or the individuals concerned. Whilst it may be a big deal at the time, the difference to a student attending top 30 university A as opposed to top 30 university B is tiny. What is more important is that we improve standards of parenting and schooling so that all children can have their talent potential realised in whatever form it takes. For some this will be a degree at a top university, for others it will be an excellent vocational apprenticeship. We must work hard to stop the next generation falling out of meaningful education, employment and training and becoming wasted talent.
We must also make sure that just as we avoid punitive rates of income tax that would frighten our most talented wealth creators overseas, so we also avoid discriminating against exceptionally bright students from “privileged” backgrounds in university entry or we risk precipitating a brain drain of UK talent to competitor countries. We must maximise and retain all of our talent, rather than indulge in a game of class snakes and ladders which would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic whilst ignoring the iceberg.