Monday, 17 June 2013

Social mobility and the Russell Group

The BBC published an article about a think tank investigation that showed that the number of state educated students going to Russell Group universities has declined in the last ten years and this is reflecting an increasing lack of social mobility.

Now I first have to say that I was from a state school and that I was educated at and have taught at two Russell Group universities (one is less Russell Group than the other). So I have been there and done that as well as being the son of divorced parents and of a family where I was the first to stay at school beyond 16.

Anyway this made me think back on something that happened when I was a lecturer at Oxford and I was interviewing for a teaching assistant post. We had three candidates of which one of them was from Exeter and the others were from Oxford and a London University. I was interviewing with another Oxford lecturer who had done their doctorate at Cambridge. After the interview two candidates were quite similar in performance but one was obviously not as good, and this was the one from Exeter. So we talked it over and finally the Oxford candidate got the post. What stunned me was my colleague's comment about the candidate from Exeter. They apologised that we could not give the teaching assistantship to them. Now why was there a need to apologise? They were not the best candidate, so why did the fact we had been to the same university matter?

That is the point, and why social mobility and the composition of the Russell Group intake matters. It is because to Oxbridge graduates and this can be extended to other institutions in the Russell Group, where someone comes from matters. It is the old school tie problem. This is what you get from graduating at those institutions. You do not necessarily better teaching (although one to two tutorials like those in Oxbridge are something other universities can only dream of), or even better qualifications (studies show that students at top universities in the US make little progress at university). What you get is a network of social contacts that will serve you for life. If we exclude certain social groups then this will maintain or exacerbate levels of inequality in society and this is why it matters that we try to promote social diversity in the elite universities.

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