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Nick Clegg was passionate in his appeal for greater social mobility at the Bridge Group’s launch of its report last night. To illustrate the problems of lack of social mobility and increasing social division in Britain, he used the example of social differences in his Sheffield constituency, where people’s life expectancy differs dramatically depending on the area in which they live. However, this illustration conflates concerns about inequality with social mobility. Getting a few more working class kids from his constituency into Oxbridge won’t mean longer lives for the majority of his working class constituents.

Nick Clegg was passionate in his appeal for greater social mobility at the Bridge Group’s launch of its report last night. To illustrate the problems of lack of social mobility and increasing social division in Britain, he used the example of social differences in his Sheffield constituency, where people’s life expectancy differs dramatically depending on the area in which they live. However, this illustration conflates concerns about inequality with social mobility. Getting a few more working class kids from his constituency into Oxbridge won’t mean longer lives for the majority of his working class constituents.

To be fair, when challenged along these lines by a member of the audience, Mr Clegg made a convincing argument that inequality does not necessarily preclude social mobility, using the example of Australia (which has relatively high levels of social inequality, but greater social mobility) to maintain that this is a particularly British problem. Nevertheless, the concern remains that the methods envisaged by the Government (and perhaps even by organisations such as Aim Higher and the Bridge Group) to address social mobility represent minor tinkering rather than significant change. And that without the latter, inequality (and lack of social mobility) will grow. Social mobility cannot be removed from issues of inequality – the wealthy have the financial and social capital to cement their advantage in a range of ways. To enable social mobility there has to be space at the top, but in an increasingly competitive society the wealthy have become adept at filling that space, leaving no gaps to squeeze into.

Of course, the concept espoused by the coalition which encompasses both social mobility and inequality is social justice. Rawls would maintain that in order to facilitate genuine equality of opportunity – and thus social mobility – society needs to even the playing field to make the race genuinely fair. This requires an approach far more radical than a bit of mentoring and a few tours of elite universities for the few working class kids that have flourished in the state school system. I am increasingly favouring Matthew Taylor’s suggestion of quotas of disadvantaged young people for universities. This doesn’t of course address the issue of dis/advantage in young people’s lives to this point (in terms of level playing fields), but is one more meaningful way of addressing the issue at university level.

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