Global social mobility debate held at the British Library

On 13 November, RSA Academies and Warwick University hosted a debate at the British Library on the theme of universities, access and global social mobility.

The debate was introduced by Professor Jane Elliott, Chief Executive and Deputy Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council and chaired by Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library.

The panellists were:

This debate is part of a wider collaboration between the University of Warwick and RSA Academies on the development of innovative, effective and distinct approaches to widening participation, at this event we launched a booklet explaining the partnership and detailing different projects that have been undertaken together to open minds of young people to university.

Here RSA Academies’ Roisin Ellison gives her views on ‘the mobility problem’ and a summary of the debate.  Here is an excerpt:

“there was much concern over the fact that certain groups in society suffer from series obstacles to climbing up the social mobility ladder. Prof. Yellowlees, first female president of the RSC, opened the debate with woeful statistics on the retention rates of females in STEM subjects with, for example, only one in three women studying a STEM subject going onto a career in that industry, compared with just over half of men. Baroness Amos further highlighted this problem when talking about the issue of race equality in higher education, with a worryingly high dropout rate for students from particular communities. Though, as Baroness Amos emphasised, the tensions within education for issues of both gender and race are complex, and we need to think about why some individuals from these groups excel and others don’t.

Another key theme from the debate related back to the above report’s finding of the squeezed top, with fewer professional jobs and a more educated workforce meaning that those who make it to university have no guaranteed path to graduate employment. This is worsened by the fact that, as both Annissa Warsame and Daulton Redmond commented, schools are increasingly having to narrow their metrics of success, merely testing a student’s ability to memorise and regurgitate information and thus only allowing the small number of those students who master this skillset to ‘succeed’. Further, this small number then may make it onto higher education but, with such a squeeze at the top, they risk falling right back down the ladder once they graduate.”

The debate also debunked the popular myth that the cost of university is deterring people from applying.  Research from Ucas in fact shows that that admission numbers have not dropped.  Indeed, the Ucas analysis concludes that inequality among university entrants has reduced since higher tuition fees were introduced, despite concern that increased costs would have the opposite effect.

After the debate at the British Library, students from RSA Academy, Tipton, Holyhead and Whitley Academy held their own debate ‘should university education be free?’ back at the RSA.  The students were put into two mixed groups and had time to prepare their arguments, in some cases championing a case they didn’t believe it.  Both sides, for and against, were argued passionately.  The RSA judging panel was split, so it was down to “Head Judge Joe Hallgarten” to decide – concluding that those arguing for free education had won the debate.

Related project: Warwick University