A few years ago I was debating the issue of unpaid internships and the effect of this on social mobility. The common theme at the time was that paying for internships would solve the problem. It was a compelling argument because of it’s simplicity, but fundamentally wrong.
One of the biggest issues with internships is the availability and transparency of opportunity. When opportunities are only available to those that are in the know, that are connected, or that are referred, paying rather than solving the problem of access just exacerbates it. This isn’t to say that internships should be unpaid, far from it, but that it needs to be combined with other systemic changes.
There is a similar argument to be played out in relation to university fees. The simple argument goes that by charging for university you restrict the number of entrants from lower social classes. Again, it is a compelling one. But one that isn’t backed up by data. Simply, there is nothing that would suggest that free education, without means testing, would do anything that subsidise the dominant middle classes.
In 2015, when the idea was mooted, a total cost of £10bn per annum was suggested to introduce this measure, equivalent to 11.5% of the UK education budget. Which begs the question what could be achieved by investing this money in primary and secondary education in areas with the lowest social mobility?
If you are an 18 year old in London and the South East you are more likely to go to university than if you are an 18 year old in any other part of the UK, by quite a significant margin. In fact, when you start to look at the entrants by parliamentary constituency, there is significant correlation with the areas of the greater social mobility highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission.
Assuming there is a finite amount of money available to government, the evidence clearly suggests that the best bet for improving social mobility is investment in the compulsory education system in those areas where the outcomes of young people are the lowest. That’s before we consider the alternative routes into the labour market other than university, such as apprenticeships.
The idea of free university is an appealing one, but unless significant changes are made to the education outcomes of those in the social mobility cold spots, it will do little to benefit social change. Instead, it will disproportionately benefit those who already have better outcomes and continue to widen the social divide.