Bridge Group Chief Executive Addresses Guests at Birkbeck College Foundation Day Dinner

The Bridge Group’s Chief Executive, Nicholas Miller, addressed an audience at Birkbeck’s  Foundation Day Dinner on Wednesday 13th December.

Birkbeck’s friends and supporters came together to discuss the fundamental importance of social mobility for employers, education and society as a whole at the College’s annual Foundation Day Dinner.

The event, hosted by Professor David Latchman CBE, the Master of Birkbeck, and Chairman of Governors Sir Harvey McGrath, is celebrated as close as possible to 2nd December each year, the date of the College’s foundation in 1823. Hosted at Birkbeck’s Malet St Campus, the event is an opportunity to update guests on the College’s activities and to strengthen its networks for future support.

Professor Latchman said: “Foundation Day Dinner is an important moment for members of the Birkbeck community to come together to remember the spirit in which the College was founded and to affirm our continuing commitment to George Birkbeck’s original mission. Social mobility has long been key to that founding vision and we will continue to explore these issues fully to ensure our students and society benefit.”

The speech in full is appended below.


Birkbeck Oration at the Foundation Dinner
Social Mobility and Public Trust

Nicholas Miller, Chief Executive, the Bridge Group

Wednesday 13th December, 2017

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I will do my utmost to make this address on social inequality as festive as possible.

My short story this evening starts in the dark, but I promise we will emerge together into the light.

There could not be a more delicious time to discuss this topic. It is just ten days since Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission resigned.

As I stand before you in the closing weeks of 2017, the political shifts and public unrest of the last year are unprecedented in modern times.

The debate about social mobility rages on – not least this morning on R4 and in the Financial Times. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening, and influence in politics, the media, and business remain largely the property of the elite.

The overwhelming public sentiment is that globalisation has benefitted few, at the expense of many.

And the rise of populism is the expression of this discontent.

No retrospective of year can overlook the scenes that unfolded in the Capital on the 14th June, a few miles from here. The fire in Grenfell Tower was firstly a tragedy for individuals; but, also, a potent symbol of a system that seems to have got things horribly wrong.

A man-made disaster, in the local authority with the greatest gap between rich and poor anywhere in the UK.

In this year’s MacTaggart Lecture, Jon Snow captured the mood – as he addressed the media elite gathered at the Edinburgh Television Festival:

“All of us in this room are by definition, part of the elite. By the nature of the business we do, we have an obligation to be aware of, connect with, and understand the lives of those who are not part of the elite.

We are in breach of that obligation – that in an increasingly fractured Britain, we are comfortably with the elite, with little connection with those outside of our circle. The disaster of Grenfell Tower has proved how dangerous that disconnect can be.”

And peering across the Atlantic, the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration will unfold on Twitter in the New Year: the 45th president; the oldest and wealthiest ever appointed; and the first without any prior governmental experience.

I hoped to amuse you with my choice of “inane tweet of the year” from Donald Trump; I didn’t have time to choose from the long list of options.

It’s very easy to characterise those who voted for Trump in pejorative terms.

The great trick that he pulled off was to appeal squarely to a large proportion of the electorate who continue to feel disregarded, disconnected, and desperate.

If you’re looking for an explanation for what’s happening in the USA, I offer you a single data-point.

Since the crash in 2006, 11.6 million jobs have been created in the USA; 99% have been available only to those with a College education.

The Great Recession decimated low-skill and clerical jobs, and the strong recovery has added many professional jobs. A vast swath of the US population left disconnected; College education out of reach.

Trump is an important reminder that we should always be suspicious of a man who talks about himself in the third person.

But the climate in the US could also be an important warning.

We have been interrogating the data compiled by the Eldeman Trust Barometer, which gauges global public trust in the system – and have looked specifically at the UK data.

Public trust in government, business and the media experienced its largest-ever decline in early 2017.

But the striking finding is that charities and universities have now experienced a similar, significant decline in trust for the first time; and are now trusted less than business.

Our universities have often been celebrated as engines of social equality, and have been somewhat immune from public distrust.

The mood appears to be changing.

·       pay amongst vice-chancellors is under scrutiny.

·       there is intensifying concern about the lack of diversity at many institutions.

·       Brexit advocates are resentful that institutions have typically championed an opposing view.

(we look forward with great anticipation to Mr Heaton-Harris’s book on this subject)

·       Advocates of freedom of speech are concerned about expurgation on campus.

·       And most factions are in harmonious disagreement about continued increases to tuition fees.

In this climate, our universities risk being cast as institutions that uphold, or even exacerbate, the inequalities that are fuelling discontent.

Public trust in our universities should be nurtured – it should be protected and cared for. It is the foundation on which institutional autonomy and academic freedom are constructed.

Considering this topic, I cannot resist turning to Onora O’Neill.

Her work is taught on the ethics course here at Birkbeck, and she spoke in this building in 2010. In her 2002 Reith Lecture on public trust:

“We are flooded with information about government departments, about hospital and university league tables.

No information about institutions is too boring to remain unpublished. We need to think less about accountability through central control”

Purpose and service – if we are to restore trust, we will have to start communicating this in a way that is meaningful to all.

And, so, arm in arm with Onora, from the dark, let’s step into the light.

And let’s not waste a good crisis.

This is a moment in history when our universities need to step up.

Across the sector, there is a pressing need for us to clearly and compellingly articulate the purpose of the University –

Its role in defending truth and thoughtfulness, and for fostering democracy, peace, equality, and the value of diverse perspectives.

There are multiple strands to this narrative – the impact of the College’s world class research, and the economic contribution Birkbeck makes to this City.

But the enduring and strongest thread in this narrative must be about equality and diversity – that we cannot boast of a world class higher education system if it is largely the preserve of the privileged.

This narrative exists – to some extent. But I put to you that the current, dominant narrative on access to higher education is reductive.

It is significantly lacking in three regards.

And in addressing each of these areas, I believe we all need more Birkbeck.

First limitation is:

The dominant narrative is built on a deficit model, that is: students from poorer backgrounds are lacking in resource, in various types of capital – and therefore require remediation.

Definition of privilege is: “a special right or advantage available only to a particular person or group.”

Dominant narrative advocates that we might, through intervention and good will, grant access to the privilege of higher education to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are two well-rehearsed arguments for increasing and diversifying the population of students who benefit from higher education – and for boosting social mobility.

The first is an egalitarian argument – that talent and hard work should determine outcomes, not the background into which you are born.

The other argument is economic; wasted talent is ultimately detrimental to GDP. This is couched in the needs of the labour market, which in turn is increasingly moulded around the Knowledge Economy.

Beyond the egalitarian and the economic, there is an equally important third argument for promoting access and diversity, which is much less well rehearsed.

The greatest reward of diversifying access to higher education is that it brings educational advantages for all.

Whether in molecular biology, economics, or philosophy – the real reward of diversifying access to higher education is that:

·       learning alongside dissimilar people broadens the debate;

·       it exposes students to different and unfamiliar perspectives;

·       and helps to mobilise a wider range of experiences in the pursuit of solutions to our most challenging contemporary problems.

Diversity with respect to social background; but also age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, faith.

Rigorous learning in this environment of diversity, and the benefits associated with it, is the defining characteristic of the College.

We need more Birkbeck.

And, in turn, enlightened employers are gravitating to the College – because there is an increasing awareness that diversity can drive better organisational outcomes.

Whether that is a civil service better placed to craft social housing policy, because those involved can draw on lived experiences; or a leading accountancy firm better placed to meet clients’ needs, because the workforce is more representative of them.

The second limitation is that:

The dominant narrative on access to university is disproportionately focused on a traditional model of 18 year olds progressing to three-year, full-time undergraduate degrees.

The percentage of young students accessing higher education continues to increase, but the gap in participation between the rich and the poor remains steadfastly unchanged.

It is still typically the case that if you don’t board the train to university at age 18, then you can wave goodbye to the benefits of higher education forever. If we really care about social mobility, that should not be tolerated.

We need more Birkbeck.

And there is furthermore a disproportionate focus (an obsession almost) on squeezing small additional numbers of disadvantaged students, into a small number of the most elite institutions.

That is an important focus, but it is the tip of a much more important iceberg.

We will look back on the money invested thus far to widen access to higher education in disbelief that far more wasn’t directed to developing flexible models of part-time study, and in ensuring that those who didn’t board the train at age 18 aren’t left stranded, left disconnected, on the platform forevermore.

We need more Birkbeck.

I constantly hear employers saying that one of the most effective ways to prepare for professional life is to have studied a rigorous academic curriculum with a diverse peer group, and to have balanced study with meaningful work.

Employers need more Birkbeck.

A third and final limitation:

Bridge Group research captures the social, cultural and economic benefits that higher education confers on students.

In an attempt to address unequal access to university, vast amounts of expertise (and many millions of pounds) have been expended on programmes, interventions and research.

This focus on diversifying entry is of course important, but there must also be a corresponding focus on the experiences of students once they become part of our university communities.

It has been assumed historically that admission to university has a social levelling effect: once you’re in, you’ll get ahead.

This is a myth. Those for whom the cost of higher education is most acute often benefit the least.

Six years after graduation, students from higher income families have median earnings that are around 25% higher than those from lower income families.

Once controlling for institution attended, subject, and gender – this premium is preserved at ten per cent.

The notion that diversifying entry to university is necessary, but not sufficient, is thankfully becoming more prevalent.

Our universities cannot contribute meaningfully to social mobility unless the commitment to widen access – is matched with a corresponding effort to ensure that students from different backgrounds can benefit equally from the experience.

This will require collective responsibility, and collaborative action: the recruitment practices of employers, for example, can be deeply unhelpful, or wonderfully supportive, in promoting equal graduate outcomes by social background.

We need more Birkbeck – but I urge the College to redouble its current work to ensure that all students can thrive at the College irrespective of background; and that you will become a beacon for others in the sector in this regard.

In closing, it is likely customary for those standing here to quote the illustrious founders of this College.

It is remarkable that Birkbeck has remained steadfastly true to its founding mission; but in the spirit of looking forwards, I will end with a quote from one of your recent graduates. She said:

“Studying at Birkbeck didn’t just help me realise that someone like me could make it. The revelation was that anyone with the talent, drive and imagination could make it at Birkbeck. Now you can’t say that about many universities.”

If the College can have a transformative effect on the lives of its students, but also craft a strong narrative about purpose and service, and drive systemic change, then – who am I to judge, but I sense that the Founders of this great place would be sincerely proud.

“Now you can’t say that about many universities.”

Thank you for your attention.

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