Speech by UK universities minister on longitudinal studies and social mobility

In a speech this week in London – against a backdrop of students protesting noisily about government cuts to higher education – the UK Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, focused on the importance of longitudinal studies as a “rich resource” for advancing social science, shaping public policy and explaining long-term social change.

Giving the annual Neville Butler Memorial Lecture, the minister highlighted the 1958 and 1970 Birth Cohort Studies, which, taken together, “shifted the debate on social mobility in the UK”. But he acknowledged the gap in Birth Cohort Studies after 1970, and expressed regret that no full cohort study was undertaken during the previous Conservative government.

The minister considered several aspects of social mobility in his speech, exploring why social mobility in the UK declined between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts, and questioning the ‘early years determinism’ that has been at the forefront of policy in recent years. Revisiting previously controversial remarks on the impact of greater equality for women on social mobility for men, he observed that higher education has declined as a tool for social mobility as a greater proportion of “middle-class girls” have taken up places at universities.

On ‘early years determinism’, Willetts stated that, while investing in early years education remains important, this should be continued throughout the life-cycle. He cited research suggesting that children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds do not lose their cognitive skills as they develop – which clearly has implications for decisions about policy priorities and resource allocation.

Turning to the Government’s current higher education reforms, the minister emphasised that he is “an admirer” of social science and reiterated points he has made previously about funding for social science research being covered by the ‘science ringfence’. And on social science teaching, he insisted there is “no bias” against any discipline and that cash lost from the teaching grant should be “more than replaced” with higher fees and loans.

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