At the heart of any social mobility agenda lies the notion that there is a route out of poverty. For many, it is our education system that equips those from disadvantaged backgrounds with the necessary skills and qualifications to compete in the labour market. Although 2017 marked the year that 18 year olds from all backgrounds were more likely to enter higher education than ever before, social mobility remains stagnant for certain groups.
Most notably, in recent years and following the Brexit vote, the attention has fallen to one particular group: the white working class. According to the UCAS End of Cycle report, ‘the white ethnic group continues to have the lowest proportional rate of progression to higher education’. Whilst this is a group that desperately requires the attention of policymakers, does focusing solely on ethnicity help us solve the social mobility dilemma?
Arguably, attempting to tackle social mobility through the lens of ethnicity threatens to undermine social integration. It lends itself easily to arguments of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with the ‘them’ taking from the ‘us’. By focusing on the white working class relative to the ‘successes’ of the ethnic minority working class, there is also a danger of critically undermining key issues of class, income and place-based disadvantage that have seen the white working class ‘fall behind’.
These factors are explored in depth in the Social Mobility Commission’s, State of the Nation Report published in November 2017. The report assesses the progress that the country has made so far in improving social mobility and reveals the extent of the postcode lottery that exists in our country today. For example, whilst 50% of disadvantaged young people in Kensington and Chelsea progress to university, only 10% in Hastings, Barnsley and Eastbourne do the same.
Perhaps most importantly for the argument of keeping social mobility inclusive, the report draws attention to the fact that the income gap is larger than either the ethnicity gap or the gender gap in schools. As stated by Dr Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, “The white working class have more in common with poor ethnic minority communities than they do with the white middle and upper classes.” Tackling the social mobility crisis requires policymakers to address the growing income gap as something that impacts all the working classes.
Moreover, although ethnic minority students outperform their white peers, they still face disadvantages as they progress into the labour market. For example, the social mobility challenges faced by young Muslims are particularly stark as their educational successes do not translate into good labour market outcomes. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed or in insecure employment than white workers; they are also paid less than their non-Muslim peers.
Although black students are more likely to progress to university than their white counterparts, they are also more likely to drop out. According to the UPP Foundation and the Social Market Foundation (SMF), more than one in 10 black students drop out of university in England, compared with 6.9% for the whole student population. The government’s ground-breaking Race Disparity Audit last year also revealed that around 1 in 10 adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or mixed background were unemployed compared with 1 in 25 White British people.
Government cannot begin to tackle these issues, whilst at the same time promoting the notion that because the white working classes are amongst those least likely to go to university, ethnic minorities must be reaping all the benefits. Social mobility is a vital tool for integration and must remain inclusive if we truly wish to tackle the varying disadvantages that exist for all young people from low socio-economic backgrounds.