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Higher education and social mobility in great britain

Share via Email Universities in Australia and the UK are expanding, but is this increasing students' chances of social mobility? He always held that his class would have worked against him back in the UK, keeping him out of university. But he also found similar barriers growing up in Australia and counted himself as having beaten the odds when he finally graduated. Recently Ron and I were talking about his experience and comparing it to today's students.

Ron still maintained that, even with its problems, Australian higher education is more accessible than in the UK.

Social mobility must underpin higher education

But is he right? Within this, both countries are trying to improve access for students considered disadvantaged.

In Australia, this is often defined by where you grow up and measured by postcode. In the UK, disadvantage is commonly measured by parental occupation.

Social mobility in Great Britain: fifth state of the nation report

In both countries these figures are under-representative, meaning they are lower than they should be, based on each group's relevant share of the national population. However this is a very broad brushstroke approach to defining disadvantage.

Each country has identified more specific groups of disadvantaged students. The groups of students still under-represented In Australia, Indigenous student enrolments are only about half what they should be, again given their share of the national population.

Enrolments from students living in rural and remote areas think the outback are only about a third of what they should be.

Social Mobility in the UK's Higher Education Sector: A Critical Review

Also under-represented are students with disabilities, students from non-English speaking backgrounds and women studying towards professions that tend to lead to higher wages. In the UK, young people in the most disadvantaged areas or wards would need to treble their participation rate in order to match the rate of those from the most advantaged areas.

Also, the gap in participation between London and the rest of the country is widening. Across the UK, young participation rates in Wales are the lowest. The story for women is the same as it is in Australia: The picture painted in both Australia and the UK is therefore similar.

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As each country's higher education system continues to expand, the actual numbers of disadvantaged students gaining access increases, but their proportional share increases much more slowly — if at all.

If you imagine the higher education sector as a pie then it means that the size of the pie has got much bigger in recent years, but the share of the pie given to some groups of disadvantaged students hasn't changed.

Social mobility in higher education: who does it better, Australia or the UK?

Although social mobility in and through higher education has improved for this generation of students, for too many, things are little better than when Ron's parents emigrated. Time to get more accurate definitions? Perhaps the real challenge for both countries is getting more accurate definitions and measurements of disadvantage. For example in Australia, the use of the postcode or census district to measure socioeconomic disadvantage is inaccurate. In the UK, London is a demographic game changer due to its sheer size and available resources compared to the rest of the UK.

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This means that comparisons between London and the rest of the UK often become distortingleading to the impression that simply relocating to the capital will automatically increase your child's chances of social mobility. In defence of all those working to address educational disadvantage, to date no-one has found an alternative, reliable measurement that doesn't require individuals to answer personal and intrusive questions regarding their background.

But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Tim Pitman is senior research fellow at the national centre for student equity in higher education at John Curtin institute of public policy, Curtin University. But who's leading the way, and are they going in the right direction? We spend two weeks debating, sharing stories and opening up the discussion. Join the Higher Education Network for more comment, analysis and job opportunitiesdirect to your inbox.

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