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Higher education and social mobility in great britain

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1268 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Education has always, and will continue to play a major role in the sociological development of Great Britain, but to what extent does education affect the social classes and does it contribute to movement through these social classes? In order to understand whether education plays a major role on social mobility it is important to understand whether social mobility was apparent before the introduction of a national educational system. Sociologists have been concerned with the link between education and social mobility and have formed argument for and against the idea that education encourages social mobility.

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Initially the system of higher education within Great Britain was that of an elitist nature, those who could afford to receive education continued into an elite university. This continued the pattern of a distinct upper, middle and lower class system. During this period, in which the elitist education system ruled and up until the emergence of mass higher education, where by the number of students ‘doubled with-in five-year periods during the decade of the sixties’ (Trow, 1973), there was little chance of social mobility. Anthony Heath el al. (1999) wrote that ‘Social origins have conditioned educational level, and both have conditioned achieved social status,’ this reiterates the fact that education and social mobility are linked and that the education you receive and your predisposed social status both contribute to ones social fluidity. (Tow, 1973) argued that to change a system of education form elitist to mass is to change the role of education within society. This suggests that the mass levels of higher education change society and the roles such as social class with-in it.

It becomes obvious through the work of such sociologists as Heath(1999) and Trow(1973) that the introduction of mass education related to an ability to move through the social classes, but the system of higher education has changed in recent years. Considering the current system of Higher Education whereby it is almost available for all, through student’s loans and bursaries, it would seem the chances of social mobility should increase. Even those who were born into the working class had the opportunity to attend university and achieve a degree. It soon became evident, with the emergence of graduate jobs, that those with a higher education degree are able to achieve better and higher paid jobs and thus are able to move intra-generationally into the higher social classes, and are upwards socially mobile. Llewellyn supports this idea by claiming that ‘the tightening bond between education and occupational attainment’ is likely to encourage social mobility.

However, studies have shown that the level of mass higher education in the United Kingdom may be the reason for a decrease in the rate of social mobility. (Fulcher, 2007)

As more people attend university the number of graduates out-weighs the number of graduate jobs leading to over-qualification, with ‘about 30 percent of graduates over-educated’ (Sloane, 2003 in Chevalier 2007 pg.2) This, therefore means that graduates are unable to work in the jobs there are qualified for and will initially not be able to advance between the social classes. In some circumstances such as in the current economic climate, where ‘graduate employment at its highest in 18 years(HESA,2010) graduates may find themselves unemployed and still face the task of eventually repaying their student fees.

Thus far it has seemed that attending an institute of higher education increases a student’s chance of becoming socially mobile, but if we refer back to the quote from Heath it seems that a person’s born social status shapes their education which in turn shapes their eventual social destination. Who is more socially mobile has also been contested since the introduction of mass higher education. Brown el al. (1994) believes the key to social fluidity from the working class remains to be education, as traditional working-class jobs began to disappear. Although this suggest that movement from the working-class would substantial, more recent studies imply that the effects of a university education has more of an effect in the middle class. Fulcher et al.(2007 pg. 338) show that the professional and intermediate classes are those that benefit the most for the expansion of higher education. (Brown et al.) supports the idea that educational certificates is important in the possibility of remaining in or advancing from the middle class. Another idea that supports this comes from R.Brooks (2003) who suggest that a student’s choice of education may be have been down to ‘class strategies’ (R.Brooks (2003)p.g 289), this means that the parents or students may choose a certain type of education of institution in accordance to a ‘class fit’ (R.Brooks (2003)p.g 289. Fulcher (2007) provides more evidence of this writing, ‘middle class families have been using the opportunities provided by the expansion of higher education to make sure that they pass their advantages on to their children.’

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Social class, educational institutes and social mobility may all be connected by the influence of wealth. This has previously been identified in relation to graduate jobs, but educational funding may have both a positive and negative influence on social mobility. During the two previous decades government funding has been ploughed into higher education. This has meant that more people, including the working class, have been able to attend a higher education institutes. But as part of the last government’s education policy, the system of funding was changed. Student grants were abolished and there was an introduction of student loans (Bartlett et al. 2007). Bartlett et al. also claims that this was going to ‘affect worst those from lower socio-economic groups.’ In relation to social mobility, this will mean that those from the lower social classes may find it financially impossible to attend university. As a link between attending higher education and social mobility has previously been established, it may be that less working class members of society will be unable to change their social status. The most recent revelation in educations link with social mobility is the suggestion of higher tuition fees, where institutes can choose how much they charge (if they provide reason) (Browne et al. 2010). This may widen the divide between elite institutions and mass higher education institutes (Bartlett et al. 2007), thus return the country to its previous state where the divide between each socio-economic group was vast and there was very little chance of being socially mobile.

It is obvious that there is very definite link in the attendance of higher education and ones possibility of being socially mobile. Many elements of the higher education lead to both negative and positive mobility. This may be either the system of higher education whether it’s attending elite or the mass institutions or the funding that is available for students. It is also evident that the social class that a person is born into also affects their chances of being socially mobile. These together influence a person’s ability to be socially mobile. A quote previously used from Anthony Heath et al. summarises saying ‘Social origins have conditioned educational level, and both have conditioned achieved social status.’


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