Issue 1 Online Extra: Is the government doing enough to encourage social mobility? by Mike Hardy OBE

Each issue we have The BIG Debate feature. In Issue 1 we focused on social mobility and featured articles with differing viewpoints from an Academic and Lib Dem supporter. Here are some additional thoughts on the topic from Prof. Mike Hardy OBE (not included in the magazine).

Download the free digital issue here to read the debate in full

Please note: This article was originally published on the original version of The New Idealist online in May 13 before being added to this newly created site in July 2015.

“Is the coalition government doing enough to encourage social mobility?”

Last year the Nick Clegg labelled the Coalition “socially radical.” This was evident, he said, “in its “decision to create a more open society, where we loosen the links between the lottery of birth and chances in life.”

Fine words indeed. However is the Deputy Prime Minister merely presenting a worthy agenda that will be difficult, if not impossible to deliver?

It seems to me, and to many people, that we are at a point where the government’s drive for rescuing the economy is taking priority over any new commitment to fairness and radical social action.

The Coalition’s approach appears to promote a view that we can either fix the economy or have a fairer society, but not both. So, rather than support people in an aspirational nation, it is creating a more unequal and divided society, with limited opportunities for us all.

Social mobility is the ability of people, regardless of background, to change over time and to avoid the inheritance of disadvantage from one generation to the next. But if you look at the figures, the UK is not doing very well. In fact we have some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world. OECD figures, for example, show our earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect our fathers’ than any other country. Further, the top 1% of the UK population has a greater share of national income than at any time since the 1930s.

It also remains the case that parents heavily influence a child’s education in the UK. 81% of the richest fifth of the population think their child will go to university, compared to 53% of the poorest fifth  and this is reflected in achievement – 49% of the poorest will apply to university and get in, compared to 77% of the richest.

The government’s education interventions are doing little to improve this situation and are having severe consequences on young people. For instance, one of the more high profile coalition policies was to shift the cap on tuition to a maximum of £9,000 per year, resulting in 64 universities choosing to charge the maximum amount for at least some of their courses. The increase has led to a dramatic decrease in Uk-based university applications from 522,810 to 478,285, in the space of a year. On the other hand the number of young people not in employment, education or training in England has risen since the current government took office by 100,000.

A similar picture emerges when looking at home ownership in young people, an important aspiration for many within our society. The Chartered Institute of Housing reports that 43% of people in the UK aged 25-34 in 2012 owned their own home which is down from 67% in 1992. Across the UK as a whole first-time buyers are now needing to save for an average of eight years to build up a substantial enough deposit to purchase. In 1995 the average saving time was one year.

There is little doubt that the UK is in difficult times, but also little doubt that the quest for a fairer society has been downgraded by a coalition government who argue that they must make tough choices because of intense fiscal pressures. The economic indicators create a backcloth which challenges the passion for fairness: prices rising twice as fast as wages, the median wage dropping, public sector unemployment due to accelerate and another round of welfare benefit cuts for the new financial year.

The most recent Coalition social policies underline this further. Early projections show that policies on childcare and on mortgages for the housing sector quite clearly bring more benefit to those already some way up the income or social ladders. The new childcare proposals will only bring benefit to around 160,000 in the bottom 40% of earners, compared to 1.7million in the top 40%. In housing, new policies will only help 76,000 buyers over three years when estimates show that there are over 5 million renters who would like to buy.

The reality is that it is increasingly difficult for the poorest to manage income, housing and the care of their children.  The real shame is that failing to encourage social mobility matters for economic prosperity, and cutting adrift those ‘left behind’ risks increasing welfare costs and missing out on talent and capacity. As a result, the number of people who feel they have no stake in a stakeholder society will grow, not recede

I know that governments are judged against both what it wanted to do and what it was able to do. This government will also be judged against its commitment to fundamental principles of fairness and social justice amidst hard economic times. Social mobility doesn’t just happen, it is not the default. Closed doors and complex, robust barriers exist and if we want them to change, then we need to take action. The government has made this a building block for its “opening doors, breaking barriers” policy.

However, so far, it seems the Coalition government is allowing us to take a big step back to a more unequal place where it will not just be this generation that fails to aspire.

About Prof. Mike Hardy OBE

Mike is Director of the Centre for Social Relations at Coventry, and Professor of Intercultural Relations. He leads the University’s Grand Challenge for Human Security, that is developing a university-wide focus on vulnerabilities and progress for people across the world.

Until 2011, Mike was a senior leader with the British Council responsible for the Council’s global programme for cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and global strategic partnerships. His leadership British Council’s work worldwide increased its emphasis on working with difference and with inter- and intra-community relations.  His portfolio included British Council’s international work with schools and skills, networks of young global citizens and capacity development within civil societies worldwide as well as supporting partnerships which help conflict and post-conflict contexts and people and communities in fragile states

Mike was awarded the OBE in 2001 for his work in the Middle East, and was appointed a Companion of Honour of St Michael and St George (CMG), June 2010 for his work internationally in cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.

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