How Mickey Mouse ‘degrees’ hinder social mobility

More than 2,000 bright children from deprived backgrounds are missing out on places at Britain’s top universities, research published today claims. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC), an off-shoot of the Department for Education, monitors the work carried out by the government and other bodies in improving social mobility and reducing child poverty. Its latest study found that early promise shown by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds can be lost as they progress through school. The children studied (all born in 1991-92) were tracked through primary and secondary school, and beyond. The findings are alarming: children from poor backgrounds who were high-achievers at primary school, performed worse than the lower-achieving students from affluent backgrounds by the time they hit 16. Children from the most deprived families were far less likely to attend an elite university – if indeed they attended university at all.

Many of the children who took part in SMCPC’s study achieved grades good enough to apply for university, yet didn’t do so. The possible reasons are numerous: lack of support from school; lack of encouragement from home; lack of confidence from within. All issues which need to be addressed in order to counteract the downward trajectory highlighted by SMCPC’s research. There is nothing in the study that suggests money is a factor, and yet surely that’s the most obvious problem, when talking about children from deprived backgrounds? Even the smallest of state primary schools sends home frequent requests for ‘donations’ for school trips, books, and ‘educational extras’, and the demands become even greater at secondary school. At 18, faced with £9,000 tuition fees (the current cap) and soaring living costs, even the brightest of students is liable to be deterred from applying.

The introduction of university tuition fees in 1998 sounded the death-knell for academic equality, but such funding requirements were inevitable to support such a steep increase in the number of students. In 1962 just six per cent of the population attended university: by 2002 this had risen to around 43 per cent. But we should ask ourselves whether that increase is truly needed. Do we need graduates in Adventure (University of Chicester); Beauty Therapy and Spa Management (University of Bedfordshire); or Aromatherpy (Napier University)? By turning our polytechnics into universities, and vocational courses into degrees, we created an over-crowded Higher Education system we could no longer afford to subsidise. The result is that an intelligent student from a deprived background cannot afford to do a degree in law, or medicine, or veterinary science, but a lower-achieving student with more money can swan about for three years learning how to apply false nails. How can there ever be social mobility if careers that genuinely require degree-level education are closed to those without the money to pay for university?

Education is a key factor in social mobility, and if the fate of a child is not to be pre-destined by their birth, than it is crucial children are given the building blocks to climb out of poverty. Get rid of Mickey Mouse degrees and promote academic courses for those bright enough to study them – regardless of how deep their pockets are.

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Clare Mackintosh

Written by Clare Mackintosh

Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at

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