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This chapter extends the sceptical discussion of meritocracy to higher education, and access to employment. The professions’ partially successful attempt to achieve a closed shop restricts entry by those from less advantaged homes, and the less academically skilled of their own children. Data on qualifications and ‘personal qualities’ required for recruitment show detailed connections between social and cultural capital, and occupational outcome, are complicated. Higher education is status stratified: not all degrees are equal. The Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (‘HEIPR’) exaggerates the number of graduates; other statistical sources do not include data on social class. Increasing student diversity does not automatically increase mobility: working class students continue to be disadvantaged once they enter university. Meritocratic and individualistic explanations of mobility are inadequate.
For three decades after the mid-1970s there were almost no new sociological surveys of mobility. In this vacuum, findings (or rather a distorted version of them) were repeated and cross-referenced in successive government reports. Given the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of mobility revealed in Chapter 4, this chapter traces how mistakes have been copied from one document to another. The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit’s online discussion, Getting on, getting ahead is identified as a key influence on all three governing parties’ policies, with its incorrect measurements, and neglect of downward mobility. The earlier ‘Aldridge reports’ (2004, 2006) although over-pessimistic about mobility rates, briefly provided a better account.
The idea that (upward) mobility rates are too low attracts politicians who can then use it to criticise their opponents. In recent internal party struggles, both New Labour and the ‘Orange Book’ LibDems needed new symbols of legitimation, while the younger generation of Tories could use it against the ‘Old Guard’. But mobility is also part of growing discontent among the ‘squeezed middle’ and the alienated working class. Some politicians’ ‘underclass anxiety’ about the restlessness of those excluded from the good things in life, helped motivate pro-mobility policies. Urban riots, the Scottish Referendum, and UKIP support, while of course not solely about lack of perceived mobility opportunities, all depended on a sense of disenfranchisement, distance from a closed and self-recruited elite, and no prospects for improvement.