Where’s the mobility in Milburn’s social mobility?
‘No-fee’ degrees have been hailed as a way to get poorer students or those unwilling take on cumbersome debt into university. The proposal from Alan Milburn and The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions has been cautiously welcomed, but it highlights a bigger issue as, while it makes inroads into promoting social mobility, it neglects the very key issue of geographical mobility.
It’s easy to think of our lives today as being free from geographical constraints. We can Skype to friends across the Atlantic for free and hold board meetings across continents with video conferencing. We might never physically meet friends we make online, though jumping on a plane or train to almost any corner of the globe can happen at a couple of hours notice.
With these being genuine and everyday possibilities for the many, it is easy forget the few for whom an off-peak train ticket from Sunderland to Manchester is simply out of the question. Anyone would baulk at the £59.40 price tag, but for most of us, that is as far as it goes; prohibitive, but not impossible.
We might ask why, when global communication is possible from our living rooms and internet cafes, physical mobility – the real possibility of getting up and going somewhere - is still so important. But it’s not hard to see the benefits of visiting - or moving away from - family and friends, going to a job interview in another city or taking a trip to explore and expand horizons.
Unleashing Aspiration is refreshing in its boldness; Milburn and his panel do not shy away from embracing the intangible concept of aspiration, a brave move in the world of policy. As the report makes clear, aspirations are vital to social mobility and one of the best ways to imagine and dream a different future is to take yourself out of the familiar and the inevitable. It’s a cliché to harp on about the importance of travel in exploring the world and ourselves, in opening our eyes to different cultures and ways of living, but every cliché holds some truth.
Government is spending money on social mobility, but it needs to invest in the ability to move. Travel should not be the luxury of middle classes. Green, affordable transport has social, as well as environmental importance. Before Government gets too far down the road of forcing geographical compromises on those with tight budgets, I would like to see more research on exactly what impact mobility has on being upwardly-mobile, otherwise we risk building the social fault lines of the next decade across those who have a ticket to ride and those who can’t even get onto the bus.