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Improving social mobility: a challenge for universities, a challenge for everyone

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK

​Today we launched our report on social mobility, after many months of gathering the evidence and consulting with a wide range of people – including universities, schools, colleges and employers.

After analysing the evidence and extensive consultation, we have come up with a series of recommendations which we think will help universities play an even greater role in helping to improve social mobility in England.

Social mobility a top political priority

The timing of the report could not have been more apt following the Conservative Party Conference last week, as I lost count of the number of times the words 'social mobility' and 'social justice' were used by the prime minister and ministers on stage in Birmingham.

The story of our report started under the previous prime minister – going all the way back to a speech by David Cameron during a General Election rally in Croydon in April 2015. At the event, Mr Cameron outlined his vision for increasing representation from disadvantaged backgrounds and black, minority and ethnic groups in universities, the armed forces and the police. The speech was followed by an announcement earlier this year, as well as a roundtable meeting at 10 Downing Street, which I attended alongside others from universities, schools, colleges, charities and business.

When the new Prime Minister Theresa May stood outside Number 10 on her first day in office, some were left wondering if she would continue what her predecessor had started. As she gave her speech the answer could not have been clearer: social mobility and social justice would be top of her list of priorities as PM. This intention was strengthened by the appointment of Justine Greening, who became the first ever Secretary of State for Education to have received a state school education. With an expanded brief which covers universities for the first time since 2007, the secretary of state has made it clear that this is a priority for her too.

Since then we have seen the publication of a green paper, 'Schools that work everyone', which includes sections on how universities should work more closely with schools to improve attainment levels. The paper has received a mixed response, with a number of UUK members commenting in the media. They all point to the fact that solutions to entrenched problems of social disadvantage are not straightforward, and there are no easy answers – something that has become very clear in our work on the Social Mobility Advisory Group these past several months.

The evidence from today's report also shows that while the focus on university admissions is important, it is no longer enough. What matters equally are the outcomes of those going to university. How they develop personally, what friends they make and what networks they create, what degree result they achieve, and what job they get when they leave are all important factors too.

Collaboration is key

In developing the report, we worked with representatives from universities, schools, colleges and employers, as well as education charities and alternative higher education providers. This reflects a major theme in the report, which is that collaboration and coordination between different sectors, in a way that is responsive to regions and place, is absolutely crucial to the success of social mobility. It is vital that this partnership continues and I am incredibly grateful for the many hours that all these groups have put in to inform today's report.

We are due to report back on progress by the end of 2017. Meantime, we look forward to working with individuals and organisations to take the recommendations forward. 

The conclusions and recommendations from the report will be discussed at The 6th Annual Access to Higher Education and Student Success Summit, held in partnership with Action on Access on 9 November 2016 at Woburn House Conference Centre, London.​

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