Alan Milburn's report [on social mobility] was a milestone. As he set out, this is a much bigger issue than just higher education. It has implications for parental attitudes and the whole education system, especially the journey towards or away from university that begins in the early teens, or indeed even earlier than that. In 13 years as MP for Hartlepool, I saw at first hand the damage that can be done by low expectations and by barriers to social mobility. I have always believed that a fair Britain is one in which the daughter of a Hartlepool shopkeeper has the same shot at being a high court judge as the son of a Surrey stockbroker.
Now of course it is true that university education is not the only way to prepare successfully for modern economic life. Indeed I believe that one of the great challenges for this government is now further defining and promoting different pathways into non-graduate careers, building on our strengths in further education and developing adult skills. We now have quarter of a million apprentices in this country – five times more than we did a decade ago when this government started out – which opens up the potential to develop over time a whole new offer to young British people for professional development.
Nevertheless, a university education remains the gateway to the professions and a ticket to higher lifetime earnings on average. So I think we have to ask why, for all the work in the sector and all the seriousness with which it has tackled this question, are we still making only limited progress in widening access to higher education to young people from poorer backgrounds, especially at our most selective universities?
We clearly need to look again at how, and how early we identify and engage potential candidates for university. I am attracted to the idea of stronger links between the professions, universities and schools – work experience, early mentoring, clearer lines of communication about what preparing for university and a career in the professions means at every stage of secondary education.
This is an edited extract of a speech given by the First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to students at Birkbeck College, University of London, on Monday