Snakes and ladders

The UK Social Mobility Awards (SOMO) are a cross-society set of awards “established to recognise and encourage action that will promote and increase social mobility within Britain’s companies and institutions. These awards…recognise best practice and innovation and celebrate excellence and achievement and elevate social mobility as a cause equal to the level of other diversity issues”. On Thursday last week, Sheffield Hallam was named as University of the Year in the 2021 awards – having been shortlisted along with Warwick, Exeter, Bradford, Southampton and the Open University. I’m delighted that our excellence has been acknowledged – and this is our second national accolade in two years, having been named by the Sunday Times as University of the Year for Teaching Quality in 2020. These national awards matter for more than the sugar-rush of a press release and social media noise: they are important markers of a university which is increasingly influential and confident about its mission and achievements. Perhaps the best thing about them is the impact on colleagues across the University – whose awards they are, of course.

Social mobility is a difficult concept, and it has its critics: is a socially mobile society one in which a small number of individuals rise a long way in the conventional social hierarchy however steep it is – the “log cabin to White House”, or perhaps Cinderella versions of social mobility?  Or is a society more socially mobile when a large number of individuals make more modest progress in a large number of fields – the “tide coming in” version?  Many of our ideas about social mobility are affected by a very specific period in our history between about 1960 and about 1980. In this period, relatively high economic growth and growing affluence meant that white-collar occupations were multiplying, creating opportunities for rapid advancement, whilst manufacturing jobs were yet to experience the steep decline which came after 1980.  At the same time, higher education was expanding rapidly following the introduction of student grants and local authority support for fees. For many people, that period of a relatively open society is the golden age of social mobility, not least because the appearance of rising through the social hierarchy could be achieved without the often painful converse in which some groups fall – the “Snakes and Ladders” version of social mobility.

In the last forty years, life has been much tougher. Technology has ripped through the labour market. Public sector budgets have been more tightly constrained. Economic inequality has become more pronounced.  There is a widespread perception that social mobility has slowed. That may be why it’s now that politicians of left and right, along with civil society organisations, have been keen to hunt out examples of good practice. We need good answers. In this morning’s Wonkhe blog, Jayne Taylor, Head of Student Recruitment and Access Development at Hallam sets out how the challenges for widening access to higher education will intersect with demographics over the next decade.

The research evidence is reasonably clear, though like everything else in this field, not uncontested. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett lay out the overwhelming evidence that more open, equitable societies are more successful and result in better lives for almost all their members. In the UK, thirty years of relatively progressive taxation after 1945, along with investment in public services and public housing made for a more open and equal society. After the economic crisis of 1974-1976, that went into reverse. Inequalities deepened. Some people even highlight the precise moment at which maximum openness and equity was achieved. It was the evening of Christmas Day, 1977, when the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special was broadcast. Not only was society at its most equal, but more than twenty-eight million viewers tuned in for a shared cultural experience. It’s a long time ago.

As it happens, the SOMO award as University of the Year came just two days before our first in-person Open Day of the academic year. Something over 2500 prospective students joined us at City and Collegiate along with their families. It was wonderful to see them, and colleagues, on campus and in the flesh after what has been an enormously challenging time for everyone. Not only do we know that this generation of teenagers have had their learning seriously disrupted, but we also know that the pandemic has further deepened inequalities across society. All the more important then, that the University’s work in creating opportunities through its curriculum design, teaching, research, relationships with businesses and the community, has – rightly – been recognised. We face enormous challenges as a society in rebuilding after the pandemic. At Sheffield Hallam, we know that we have a distinctive and sector-leading contribution to make.

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