Social Science’s Impact on Society, Circa 2065: Elizabeth Houghton


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Other winning essays

Overall winner
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
Highly Commended
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
Shortlisted
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” | Rebecca Wheeler, Goldsmiths University of London
“Navigating private life in a public world” | Sam Miles, Queen Mary, University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey

This year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.

Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.

The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.

“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.

Over the next 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.

Here, we present the highly commended essay “After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality,” by Elizabeth Houghton at Lancaster University. You can read her full entry below:

“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality”

By Elizabeth Houghton

On a summer’s day in 2015, in a small lecture theatre in London, a primary school student turned to his audience and said: “When we watch the news we’ve seen how university fees have risen so people from state schools feel like they can’t afford to go. All we see in the media is poshwhite kids going to university.”

His audience were budding academics, charity workers and educational professionals trying to find out how to break the link between high-earning households and access into the UK’s top universities.

Elizabeth Houghton
Elizabeth Houghton

That morning in the same theatre, the Director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), Professor Les Ebdon, had challenged top universities to use their research expertise to overcome the “tough challenges in improving access”.

“Highly selective universities are full of highly intelligent people who excel at solving problems,” he said. “If they truly harness their wealth of research expertise, it could bring a step change in progress.”

And change was needed. A year earlier Offa had found that only 2.9 percent of teenagers from the poorest 40 percent of households went on to study at the UK’s top 24 universities, an increase of only 0.5 percent from 1998. Though more people than ever were going to university, where they were going was still very much a matter of concern.

Half a century later it is worth contemplating how that’s changed. Dr. Elizabeth Houghton, who in 2015 was doing her PhD research on how students’ economic and social backgrounds affected their experiences of university, explains how it’s taken all of the following 50 years to reach a point where a student’s past no longer has such an influence on their future.

“With an issue like inequality there is never going to be a single piece of research that will change everything,” Houghton explained. “It’s a slow slog. It takes decades of work by academics, policymakers, campaigners and teachers to bring about change. But slowly, steadily, things began to get better.”

She believes a key turning point came in 2025, when the new government extended compulsory education to 21 – requiring all young people to be studying or training at the equivalent level of a higher education undergraduate degree.

There has been plenty of debate since about the motivations behind this legislation. The official reason was to bolster the UK’s ‘economic competitiveness’. There was also a recognition of so-called “credentialism”, to borrow the phrase of Basic Income campaigner Professor Guy Standing: as the number of graduates increased, more and more qualifications were needed to get a job, and by the early 2020s the lack of a university degree was effectively a life sentence to unemployment or underemployment.

Indeed, some at the time grumbled that extending education was a convenient way of massaging the employment figures, seemingly lifting one million young people out of unemployment.

Others felt extended education was a natural consequence of increasing life expectancies. As the shadow universities minister observed at the time: “If young people are going to be working till their seventies, even leaving university at 21 means almost 50 years of work. We might as well give them the chance to learn something they’ll enjoy doing for the next half a century.”

Arguably this justification proved apt: creative and social enterprises boomed, as young people had more time to think them up and less worries about getting a job to pay back their student loans.

As Houghton explains: “No one was really thinking about extending education 50 years ago, not least because once it was made compulsory there was no way of continuing to charge student fees. The debts that already existed had to be written off – which was handy as it was predicted it would cost the Treasury £8 billion a year by 2040. Wiping it out actually helped the economy, as graduates suddenly had more cash to spend.”

Compulsory undergraduate level education also meant better monitoring of where students were studying. Drawing on the Obama Administration’s 2015 changes to the Fair Housing Act in the US, the Fair Access Act of 2030 required all universities to scrutinise their student population for economic bias and provide public reports, or risk losing funding.

“There were some complaints at the time about an intrusive state,” Houghton explains. “But I think generally the sense was that we couldn’t have another 50 years of poor kids – with the racial bias that comes with that – being excluded from top universities and therefore top professions. The fact that it was university research that largely proved this made it hard for institutions to argue against.”

Houghton concludes: “Drip-by-drip, over 50 years, politics and academia stopped looking like it was just posh and white, and the more kids who saw that, the more thought ‘that could be me’. Research along with this exposure helped to change things.”


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