Social mobility and College HE: trying to move forward while wading through treacle, by Gail Hall

Social mobility and College HE: trying to move forward while wading through treacle

Gail Hall

In the report One Size Won’t Fit All, the HE Commission expresses concern about the potential for higher education to work to improve social mobility, stating that “Universities should learn lessons from the further education sector to create an environment that feels more accessible to students from low participation backgrounds” (Higher Education Commission, 2019. P32). This echoes the increasing noise from central government and its agencies that recognises the heavy lifting colleges do in the HE market. The college HE community has always championed its role and expertise in widening participation, after all, those WP students are generally the ones that we enrol in College HE. 

But evidencing what we do to improve student lives and employment prospects once they’re with us is more challenging. In this think piece I will consider the need to make progress in enabling social mobility while stymied by an uncertain political climate and the associated wait for the outcomes of reviews and consultations.

Research carried out for the Sutton Trust has shown that up to 15 million jobs in the UK will be threatened by automation and explains that part-time and mature learning will be essential in order for people to upskill and reskill (Callender and Thompson, 2018). In the Foreword to the report, Sutton Trust Chairman Sir Peter Lampl states: 

Opportunities to get on in life should not be restricted to a one-off decision at age 18. Genuine social mobility would empower all those in society to gain the skills they need to succeed, regardless of age or background. Part-time and mature education is the key to this.  (Lampl, in Callender and Thompson, 2018, p3).

This isn’t news to those of us with FE roots, nor to the many people who have been researching and writing about the contribution of further education to skills and social mobility. And I know that I was not alone with my frisson of hope and excitement after reading Augar’s Post 18 Review of Education and Funding. I was genuinely a nicer person for a few days afterwards, smiling at colleagues in the knowledge that we were playing for the right team. That our principles and aims to strengthen technical education, increase opportunities for everyone, and support disadvantaged students had been endorsed by ‘expert’ independent panel members.

But then, and we are getting used to this now, political shenanigans caused the report and its recommendations to be shelved: Teresa May announced shortly afterwards that she would resign as leader of the Conservative Party and we are all aware what followed. Seven months on, the most politically palatable bits of it were picked out and thrown around during the General Election campaign and we wait to see what will actually make it into policy in the coming months.

It strikes me that our thwarted attempts to make progress in establishing the place of College HE in driving social mobility somewhat mirror the experience of our typical students. We know that skills and education aren’t the whole story. A report from the Social Mobility Commission (2019) that found that social mobility has remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014; “being born privileged in Britain means you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you will have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that you and your children are not stuck in the same trap”. (Milburn, in Social Mobility Commission, 2019, pv).

We can hope that proposals from the Higher Technical Education Government consultation and Case for Change (2019) document are adopted. The aim of the proposals is for Higher Technical Education to be a prestigious choice that is recognised and sought after by employers; delivers high quality occupational competence; encourages more students to continue technical education after level 3 and attracts workers of all ages to upskill and or retrain.

Both documents suggest that there are lots of good practice and some excellent quality in level four and five provision, however, there isn’t a consistent approach to quality assurance, employer awareness of these qualifications is low and there is a lack of useful information, advice and guidance for students which, along with the current cultural preference for degrees, results in fewer applications for these courses. The DfE are proposing employer led national standards for HTE that recognise existing and new qualifications and offer national recognition for these courses, and to improve information, advice and guidance. 

The cultural shift required for people to accept the prestige of these qualifications however will clearly be a significant challenge and will take some time but I hope that the higher technical education review when completed will help to reinforce the value of this provision and will be a turning point for college HE. 

At Leicester College, our best provision is that which engages employers and sees industry professionals as visiting lecturers, contributing to the design and delivery of assessment, welcoming students to their spaces to do work-based projects, and collaborating with us in the validation and revalidation process. These employer relationships though are often informal and dependent on the contacts of individual teachers and technicians with others in their field, and a challenge for us, which you might recognise, is to extend our conversations with regional employers to consider how we might develop, refine and add to our curriculum in response to their needs.

A key strength that we must continue to champion is our highly skilled industry-practitioner teachers, while making sure that we are doing as much as we can to both hang on to them and to support them in their academic and professional development.  This has become more pressing at Leicester College recently as we are experiencing a brain drain of our HE teachers to the university sector. 

In research carried out during the Scholarship Project, we found that the two most preferred professional development activities were academic or scholarly development sessions with a specific focus on HE learning and teaching and independent scholarly activity (Lawrence and Hall, 2019). Scholarship is an ideal way to both support the academic and professional development of teachers and to raise the profile of the excellent teaching to be found in college HE. 

If we are serious about continuing to transform the lives of our students, helping to make them genuinely social mobile, and to take up rewarding jobs, then we must ensure that the qualifications they take have high status, and the learning environment they experience is challenging and enriching. To do this we must also ensure that college HE teachers also receive challenging and enriching professional development.  Continuing to lobby policy makers is one way to achieve this but having an effective college-wide scholarship policy can also be equally important.


Gail Hall is HE Academic Development and Enhancement Manager at Leicester College. Twitter: @EMScholarship



Callender, C. and Thompson, J. (2018) The Lost Part-timers: The decline of part-time undergraduate higher education in England. London: The Sutton Trust

DfE (2019) Higher technical education: the current system and the case for change [online] available at: [accessed 17.12.19]

Higher Education Commission (2017) One size won’t fit all: the challenges facing the Office for Students [online] available at: [accessed 17.12.19]

Lawrence, J and Hall, G. (2018) Understanding the provision and perceived value of the academic and professional development practices of HE teachers in college-based higher education (CHE) Research in Post Compulsory Education, 23:4, 437-462

Social Mobility Commission (2019) State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain [online] available at: [accessed 17.12.19]