Universities can be engines of social mobility

By Professor Nicola Miller

How depressing to hear Peter Wilby argue that universities just “perpetuate privilege down the generations” (in discussion with Stefan Collini, The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, Saturday 11 December 2010).  This is to ignore all the efforts made in most universities over the past 15 years or so to widen participation.  It is true that these efforts have not been as successful as anyone would have wished, but that does not mean that they should just be abandoned in resigned acceptance of the status quo.  In any case, it is only in reference to the most prestigious institutions (Oxford, Cambridge, London and a few others) that the evidence supports the claim that  attempts to widen participation have not worked very well.  Across the sector, there are many universities that have been far more successful in attracting people who are the first in their family to go to university.  The evidence about widening participation is mixed:  what is clear is that  more work needs to be done in schools as well as in universities.   But no-one who believes in social justice should give up on the idea that universities can, and in the right circumstances do, offer opportunities for developing talent from all sectors of society.

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