Against social mobility: equality, class and the Jilted Generation.
This week Nick Clegg announced a new strategy to improve social mobility in the UK. Firms will have to advertise work experience in schools, they’ll have to allow staff time off to mentor pupils and there’ll be a tougher line on unpaid internships, encouraging companies to actually follow the law and pay their employees at least the minimum wage. All of this is designed to create a more meritocratic society where what matters is ability not lineage. You know the kind of society where the chancellor of the exchequer might have actually studied economics, and not everyone in the cabinet is a millionaire.
Yet this week we also heard that tuition fees for English universities are likely to be £8600 on average. That’s £1000 a year more than the coalition told us they expected. So much for £9000 fees being charged only in exceptional circumstances. So much for a society that genuinely allows everyone to achieve their potential.
Clegg and company can claim fees are fair and progressive as much as they like, but the truth is that by turning education into just another commodity to be bought and sold they have undermined the future of a generation of young people across the UK.
And it doesn’t stop with fees, of course. They scrapped the education maintenance allowance, without which thousands of young people might never have been able to afford to go to college or on to university. And as Shiv Malik and Ed Howker so brilliantly described in Jilted Generation these are only two of the most recent developments in a process that has been continuing for years. Our generation born after Thatcher came to power are seeing record unemployment, unaffordable house prices, pension schemes closing to new members and can look forward to a lifetime of financial and ecological debt though austerity, PFI and climate change.
The audacity of men who benefited from free education, grants and private wealth telling us how much they care about creating opportunities for us after they’ve destroyed our future is sickening.
But in all of this are we missing the bigger picture. Is social mobility really something we should be aiming for anyway?
Chris Dillow, over at Stumbling and Mumbling, questions the whole enterprise of trying to attain equality of opportunity saying “that efforts to increase social mobility are only likely to succeed at the margin.” He adds that they should really be seen “as an attempt to legitimate inequality”. I’m minded to agree with him.
By focusing our efforts on improving opportunities to alter the social status we are born into we have to accept that class and wealth differences not only exist but are themselves legitimate. My objection to our economic system stems not so much from the fact that the children of one generation of top lawyers and doctors and politicians go on to form the next but that there is a class of people who hold that power at all. I don’t want to simply switch one group of oppressors for another on a generationally ‘fair’ basis, I want to alter the balance of power to prevent the necessity for social mobility. In a truly classless society the concept shouldn’t have any meaning.
Of course even in a system of economic equality we don’t want children simply to follow in the career of their parents but at heart the solution is to create a society in which there is no way to pass advantages to the next generation. To do that we need to drastically reduce differences in wealth and return education to a right to be valued in itself, not just for its economic benefits. So until you’re willing to scrap fees, fund education and close the growing disparity in wealth don’t talk to us about how you’re here to help, Clegg.