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A contradiction in terms: “social mobility”, austerity, and the university


Today’s post is about a thread of discussion happening over in the UK, where there has been an increasing amount of debate about the role of post-secondary education in “social mobility” (hint: the argument is that universities should do more to make it happen). In a bizarrely perverse twist, one commentator even argued that universities should have to demonstrate how much social mobility they provide, and that part of their funding should be dependent on it.

This discourse of responsibilization is nothing really new. Since at least the 1960s education has been handed the role of the “great equalizer” in unequal societies. Even once we nominally acknowledged structural rather than just individual constraints, education was (ironically) expected to alleviate these–whilst simultaneously being critiqued for reinforcing economic and social hierarchies.

If we accept the premise that we live in a capitalist democracy, we also need to remind ourselves that the term is practically oxymoronic. On the one hand we have an emphasis on economic competition and consumerism, and on the other, the notion of participation and equality for citizens.

In this system we also have a conflict between the idea of “goods” (not just “consumer” goods) being available to every person if we work to raise the overall level of well-being in society, and the idea of a kind of zero-sum game of prosperity. We can see the rising tide has not lifted all boats; when someone “moves up” others are probably either staying where they are, or moving down. “Mobility” does not occur in a vacuum, and now the shrinking and destabilizing of the professional classes is occurring alongside universities’ expansion.

Increasingly it is universities that are viewed as the cure-all for the chronic affliction of economic regression. On the one hand they are expected to increase “innovation”, the magic bullet of the moment. On the other hand, they should be training appropriate human capital for the workforce, and the individual benefits to this are expected to come in the form of increased income, which is often used to justify tuition expenses.

But the university itself has been changed. The massification of university education means that even as accessibility has increased, the university field itself has been stratified and hierarchized, no longer automatically providing “elite” credentials and social capital that formerly allowed a small group to continue its entrenched dominance (or in fewer cases, for less prosperous individuals to join dominant groups).

All this is to say that what’s expected is for education to transcend its context, which is one of neo-liberal marketization, increased competition (for individuals, organizations, and nations), and unstable government funding. But how can education be required to transcend the strictures of capitalism (and indeed, help individuals do the same) even as it is being increasingly subject to them? If education is to be the “answer” then it must undo what we’ve already done, somehow–even while it’s a product of, and affected by, those conditions.

When we talk about “mobility” I think what we need is a re-framing of the issue. Can education continue to drive this very particular model of “progress” with which we’ve been living for so long? Can education perpetuate the illusion of endless potential prosperity, while itself subject to austerity? There is no cure-all, and the notion of education as providing access to higher levels of socioeconomic status is one that must be pulled apart.

The danger of the assumptions I’m describing is the consequences of education’s “failure” for the educational professions and those working in them. Education has been subject to attacks at the primary and secondary levels as those forms of education have been seen to fail at their appointed task. Now that a PSE credential is seen as almost a necessity (for a “good life” or at leave to stave off unemployment), universities are beginning to be subject the same attacks. But the attacks will be more intense given that the price paid by individuals for their university degrees is continually spiraling upwards. It’s no coincidence that the mobility debate is occurring in the wake of new tuition policies implemented in England, where students have now seen a tuition ceiling rise from £0 before 1998, to £9000 in 2012. Unsurprisingly, one new argument in the UK is that “if the sector cannot prove its social worth then it can only expect further cuts” (Atherton).

This requirement of “proof” is only one more way in which education is being scapegoated for problems that require changes to other areas of society and governance as well. To abuse a hackneyed metaphor, how do we untie (or slice through) the Gordion Knot of inequality, when it seems engendered by the very system we have created? This deeply complex problem can’t be solved by universities–which are a part of the unequal system as well as a part of the answer to it–even if we try to make them “accountable”. If this is the answer being provided for economic regression, I think it’s time to re-focus on the big picture and ditch the reductionist, responsibilizing rhetoric.*

*But not the alliteration.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. David Hoghton-Carter / July 19, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Interesting article, Melonie. You’re absolutely right that there has been a significant and under-appreciated shift in what government, industry and society expects of Universities without the necessary process rigour to understand how to get there or indeed whether these expectations can be met at all. As the Milburn Report has raised (twice now, in fact) there’s a lot of potential for a social mobility dividend from economic growth, but we’re not making the structural changes we need to make to create it.

  2. Kean / August 8, 2012 at 10:33 am

    This is a particularly acute issue in the UK because it is such a class-ridden and class-prejudiced society where everyone knows exactly where you’ve “come from” simply by how you speak, dress, eat, etc. (speaking as a British person). To me, social mobility is being used in English political discourse (and I’m being precise by saying English and not British) as a sop to Liberal Democrat supporters who are disgusted by the Coalition government. The only way to sell the ‘marketization’ of higher education is to claim that ‘reforms’ will make higher education more egalitarian, open it up to more people, etc., etc. I’m assuming (as I haven’t checked) that the debate / discourse simply ignores the inherited privilege many children enjoy as a result of parental incomes, parental homo-ownership, school catchment area boundaries, etc. Until these are resolved (e.g. random allocation to schools), social mobility in the UK will remain appalling.

  3. Tom Berend / August 15, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    The economic, social, and geographic barriers to higher education are crumbling. E-learning is coming.

    150,000 students from around the world enrolled in MIT’s brutal ‘Circuits and Electronics’ course when it was first offered.

    Over a million students have signed up for Coursera courses so far this year, and most of them are from outside North America.

    Providing high-quality education around the planet may have unexpected outcomes for social mobility in first-world countries. But bricks-and-mortar institutions are becoming irrelevant in this matter.

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