Can science and engineering set the standard for social mobility in the professions?

The Royal Academy of Engineering today hosted this months PolicyNet discussion entitled ‘Can science and engineering set the standard for social mobility in the professions?’ The event comes after the release of the Higher Education White Paper last week, and brought together a number of professionals from various disciplinary backgrounds. Panelists Philip Greenish, CEO of the Academy and Dr Rhys Morgan, Head of Secretariat, Education for Engineering discussed the question with Dr William Haydock, Lead Researcher on Widening Participation and Access at the Russell Group before opening to questions from the floor.

Talks began by highlighting the 2010 ‘Unleashing Aspirations’ Government report which produced a number of actions to address the issues facing social mobility in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. Following this in April 2011, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg published ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility’. The 2011 report focused on the ‘its not what you know its who you know’ concept, arguing that individuals from a more affluent background often gain advantage over other equally deserving candidates due to the career assistance they receive from professionals they already know. The concept was contested by Prime Minister David Cameron who argued that such practice was almost impossible to prevent even with future changes to legislation.

The fact however remains, that in today’s society those that are privately educated are more likely to study STEM subjects, achieve higher A-Level grades, be accepted into Russell Group universities and go onto pursue careers in STEM fields. To address the issue and ensure social mobility for students from less affluent backgrounds, it was suggested that students should be given career advice and encouraged to take up STEM subjects from an early stage – something which the Higher Education White Paper failed to address. It was also suggested that there needed to be a greater number of foundation and entry level courses available to young people who had perhaps failed to obtain the required grades, or complete A-Levels in the right subjects for their chosen higher education course. The need to ensure a positive and encouraging staff attitude towards higher education for all students and incorporate parents into a strategy that considered applicants backgrounds in relation to their grades was additionally discussed.

From today’s talks it is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to improving social mobility, and that some of the core barriers to this are out of the control of scientists and associated professionals. There however remain many issues that the sector is able to influence and will endeavor to do so by making recommendations in the Higher Education White Paper response consultation which closes in September 2011.