Bridge Group conference 2019

Advancing social equality: the role of employers, higher education and government

Key themes and recommendations

On 21 May, the Bridge Group held its headline event of the year. We convened over 200 leaders and experienced practitioners, from across sectors, to advance social equality. The event, hosted by the BBC at Broadcasting House, focused on the latest evidence and identified practical action that government, educational institutions and employers can take to effect change.

Over the course of the day, we held three debates to expose the challenges and define steps to reduce inequality. On this page, you can view slides, speeches and recommendations derived from these debates.

A more equal society is better for everyone: how can government, education and employers help us get there?

> Professor Danny Dorling University of Oxford

We need to realise the scale of the social and economic inequality before we can take meaningful action to address the situation. Click on the link to view speech.

> Emran Mian Director-General, Strategy, DfE

Organisations, like social action charities, could be working more closely with government to support young people who are disengaged in education and are unlikely to participate in higher education. Click on the link to view speech.

> Dr Sam Friedman London School of Economics

Employers need to be more aware of the benefits bestowed by ‘privilege’ and remove arbitrary markers of talent. Click on the link to view speech.

> Christina Blacklaws President, Law Society

We can learn from progress made in other diversity areas, like gender, to achieve greater equality. But to achieve substantial change, socio-economic background should be a protected characteristic. Click on the link to view speech.

Advancing social equality in higher education: practical steps to effect change

> Gordon Marsden MP Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills

Too much attention has been given to young school leavers instead of building structures to enable lifelong learning. Part-time students, in particular, have been overlooked. Click on the link to view speech.

> Professor Vikki Boliver University of Durham

We need to contextualise attainment if we’re to make any progress on access to higher education, particularly to the most selective universities. Degree success does not depend strongly on entry grades. Click on the link to view speech.

> Professor Tim Blackman University of Middlesex

There needs to be structural reform of the higher education sector to increase social and academic diversity in every higher education institution. Click on link to view speech.

Advancing socio-economic diversity and inclusion: practical steps for employers

> Nik Miller Chief Executive, Bridge Group

In our research, we have uncovered an array of factors contributing to social inequality in higher education and the workplace, and examine the effects of it on the individuals who experience it. Click on the link to view speech. 

> John Amaechi Psychologist and author

There are multiple myths surrounding the idea of diversity and inclusion that need to be challenged, for instance, the notion of ‘broken minorities’. We need to concentrate instead on talent management to ensure personal discomfort doesn’t dictate organisational performance. Click on the link to view speech.

> Melanie Richards Deputy Chair and Partner, KPMG UK

We need to rethink the leadership of our organisations to focus more on skills and competencies and less on personalities and backgrounds. Change can come through daily, routine personal actions to cultivate an inclusive culture. Inclusivity is of benefit to all, not just underrepresented groups. Click on the link to view speech. 

Key recommendations for government

  • Incentives need to be created to increase economic democracy and employee ownership. This may contribute to more even rates of retention and progression by social background.

  • Socio-economic background should be a protected characteristic to drive action amongst employers and focus efforts.

  • Increase spending on public services beyond 36% GDP through progressive taxation to reduce socio-economic inequality. 

Key recommendations for higher education

  • Universities need to contextualise attainment and combine this with the provision of academic support and measures to build inclusive learning environments. For instance, by adapting language-use and avoiding terms that suggest ‘giving’ access and ‘letting’ in. Contextualised admissions is not in itself sufficient to widen access, particularly to the most selective institutions. 

  • Rethink the use of widening participation funding and its distribution to increase resources for early years provision and schools given the weight of evidence to suggest that early interventions are required to reduce educational inequality.

  • Measures need to be taken to diversify the student population at every higher education institution to reduce social and academic segregation. The introduction of quotas may be one way to see rapid change to reduce the stratification of higher education. 

  • Increase focus on part-time provision to enable life-long learning. 

Key recommendations for employers 

  • Monitor progression in the workplace by socio-economic background to ensure that it’s not just about getting in but also about getting on. Valuable measures to use are parental occupation (using NS-SEC) and parents’ educational background.

  • Employers need to diminish the prominence and power of merit and instead become more alert to the opportunities afforded by ‘privilege’, such as: financial support to gain work experience; and risk-taking to further career.

  • Formalise the criteria for promotion, ensuring it’s transparent and focused on competencies rather than implicit or arbitrary ideas associated with university attended, ‘polish’ or ‘fit’. 

  • Increase focus on place in outreach and recruitment to ensure geographical diversity and a more even distribution of opportunities.

  • Take steps to build understanding of the lived experience of inequality and the complex interactions between diversity characteristics (e.g. gender, disability, BAME) in the movement into, and across, organisations.