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  1. Spotlight on Policy
14 January 2021updated 01 Sep 2021 1:39pm

Real “levelling up“ means greater social justice

Government must address inequality, opportunity and social mobility in closing the gap between UK regions.

As the damage caused to our economy and society by the pandemic deepens every day, the case for a coherent approach to addressing inequality grows. Research undertaken by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that between March and July mortality rates from Covid-19 were twice as high in the most deprived areas as in the least deprived. One of the reasons for this is the nature of employment – many people cannot work at home and are forced to take more risks in jobs that tend to be of low value and open to Covid-19 exposure. When you add deepening income disparities, heightened employment insecurity and intergenerational poverty, the problems raised by Covid-19 become even more apparent.

The government has described its approach to addressing many of these problems as “levelling up”. Thus far, this approach has consisted of a range of separate projects designed to catch the eye and provide some relief from the continual stream of Covid-19-related bad news, but “levelling up” needs to consist of so much more. It has to transcend health, quality of life, education skills and economic development while connecting together different policies in these areas.

Tackling inequality is too important to be reduced to the political manoeuvring designed to help the government retain seats in ex-Labour constituencies. Seeing inequality as associated solely with place, and especially certain places, is also problematic. The starkest inequalities are not found in northern towns but in London, where extreme poverty sits alongside extreme affluence. London has the highest number of children in poverty of any region in the country and also by far the highest average income. But neither is London the only place where those on middle or higher incomes live. The areas that it is argued are in need of “levelling up” all include parts where professionals live with graduate or postgraduate-level education. There are also parts of such places where most people are on low incomes, but concentrating on place alone masks the intersections of class, gender and ethnicity that really define inequality.

Approaches to addressing inequality have to be subject to continual scrutiny and “levelling up” is no exception. They have to be underpinned by research and analysis that identifies the real causes of inequality and offers some workable solutions. This is why we are launching the new Centre for Levelling Up (CELUP) in the spring. CELUP will take a holistic approach focusing on broadening the levelling-up agenda. It will develop practical policies to tackle the different aspects of inequality as they impact on individuals and communities in all areas of the country. CELUP will take a “people” rather than “project”-centred approach to what “levelling up” means. This will include a particular focus on examining the role that education and skills play in the levelling-up process. More specifically, it will concentrate on the variables that have been found to structure and constrain access and participation in higher education. This will mean working on the intersections of social class, gender, ethnicity and location, as well as on the nature and character of equal opportunity.

Increasing participation and success in education and training is not a panacea for inequality, but they are essential if long-term improvements in social mobility are to be realised. Opportunities to learn and train present the best long-term route to economic and social progress. But extending them to the particular social and ethnic groups across the country that are systematically underserved by education will require quite different approaches to those that exist at present. Such approaches need to go beyond the current approach to educational “levelling up” based around shifting more resource into further education and changing the vocational qualifications offer. CELUP will attempt to outline how the role of educational providers, the relationship between them and how they are supported by local economic and social structures, needs to change.

Building a more “people” rather than “project”-centred approach to “levelling up” also means developing policy solutions informed by those at the sharp end of inequality alongside the professionals trying to support them. Initial work for the launch report for CELUP, which looks at lifelong learning and education opportunity in areas that have borne the brunt of recent social and economic challenges including Covid-19, is already challenging how the policy community on the left and right understand “opportunity”.

Social mobility has become a universal goal over the past ten years but it rests uneasily with many of those we have spoken to so far within communities. It suggests rejecting things of which they are proud, and they see it as deflecting attention from providing opportunities for economic and social progress that are grounded in specific local contexts. This rejection of the social mobility mantra, however, does not mean that all the policies associated with it are also rejected. We have, for example, found no evidence of the widespread resentment toward higher education expansion that writers such as David Goodhart claim exists. There is a desire for a wider range of different educational options, but they include accessing higher education for those who have the ability and desire to do so. This is not a zero-sum game.

Given that higher education can play a major role in future jobs and the material rewards that flow from them, as well as the transformation and reproduction of the social structure, a more thoughtful reflection of the facets of the levelling-up agenda needs to take place. This is to ensure that the agenda is not simplified to become an economic necessity but provides instead a realistic portrait of what equality of opportunity actually means in 21st-century Britain. And with this year being the 50th anniversary of the publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, one hopes that his view that social and economic inequalities should be managed to “the greatest benefit of the disadvantaged” can be fully addressed.

“Levelling up” therefore has the potential to act as a driving force in tackling these inequalities. Successive governments have not gone far enough in undertaking the structural reforms necessary to improve the lives of those on low incomes and we are lacking a language for these issues that resonates with these groups. To reach this potential “levelling up” needs to be comprehensive, bottom-up, and focused on a step change in improving education and skills outcomes. No less than this will do.

Professor Graeme Atherton will be the new Head of the Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London from spring 2021. 

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