Sunday, 11 January 2009

Milburn to tackle social mobility

It has been announced today that former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn has been asked to chair a new commission on social mobility for the government. Too little too late, I'm afraid. Social mobility, despite grossly expensive and vastly complex government initiatives, has improved only fractionally in Britain since 1997. With unemployment widely predicted to rise to the magic 3 million mark, the PM obviously wants to look as if he's taking the issue of people getting into good jobs very seriously - hence his assigning one of Labour's big guns (and one of Brown's biggest enemies) to the role.

The problem is that Labour have simply equated social mobility with academic achievement. Why are the government so obsessed with the notion that everyone has to go to university in order to make anything of their lives? This great fallacy has misled a whole generation of young people. By setting a target of half of young people to go to university, thousands of students are being conned into thinking that they are better placed to get a 'good' job and earn more money.
Whilst for some students this is true, for others it is seriously misleading; leaving them jobless and saddled with debt. It is a fact of life that some people are better are some things, whilst others are better at others - it is foolish to think that we can all excel in the same field. Since coming to power, Labour has systematically relegated careers which do not require a university degree to such an extent that many young people believe that their very future rest on whether or not they attend university. And all the time the government has been concentrating on encouraging students of 'surf studies' and the suchlike, perfectly respectable jobs have gone wanting - that's the potential of thousands of young people simply squandered. It is little wonder the PM is this week having to persuade big companies into taking on graduates as short-term interns, rather than full-time employees - there are simply too many people vying for too few positions; and with the credit crunch looming, that situation is only going to get worse.

If the government was really serious about tackling unemployment, it would reexamine its definition of 'social mobility' and launch a serious policy on apprenticeships. We shouldn't have any class hang-ups about this - anybody, from whatever background, should be able to go to university if that is the route to which they are suited. For facilitating this, the government deserves credit. But they've massively overdone it. Why depreciate perfectly good careers by placing such an emphasis on having a degree that many employers won't even hold in high regard? Surely by doing so, the government actually harms rather than improves social mobility. We need a government that actually nutured the skills of individuals - that's how people raise themselves up to their full potentials.

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