Why we need to talk about "Social Mobility"

- Rufeida Alhatimy

The world is constantly shifting. It is moving at such a rapid speed and forcing many things to move along with it. It’s difficult not to appreciate the shifts I’ve experienced solely in my own lifetime. However, one thing that I’ve noticed minimal changes in is the education system and how it operates. Despite the changes in our societies and the identities that inhabit it, the red bricks of the education system have settled into the dried up, cemented norms and values of the structure. I found myself desiring a way to soften these bricks into clay and mould it together with the warmth of the diverse identities that hold it in their hands, hoping for better futures.

Having experienced a journey through the education system which was punctuated by both internal and external struggles inspired me to begin a ‘social mobility’ project before I could even fathom the exclusive nature of our education system. I have to place the phrase ‘social mobility’ in inverted commas because I don’t think that this term does enough justice to what is at stake, nor does it capture the essence of the problem - the system itself. This is one thing that I have only recently discovered. I knew that I was struggling throughout my educational journey, but I never realised why.

That was, at least, until I was elected as the First Generation Network officer at university to voice the concerns of underrepresented groups. I nominated myself because of the many complaints I had heard from my peers. Hearing their issues triggered a sense of responsibility in me and a need to find a way to ease their burdens. By chance, I got elected into the role. I wanted to facilitate a space and support network for people who otherwise would not be supported. Only after hearing people share their stories did I realise that I was also going through many of the similar struggles of a first generation student. As much as I wanted to create the space to help others, I found that I, myself, was being helped in a space that we had collectively built. Being in such an environment is what made me realise the importance of having spaces like these. I wanted to ensure that people across various universities can feel supported. Ideas started bubbling in my head throughout my time as a First Generation Officer. Ideas that I wanted to make a reality. I knew that I needed to create a space that extended our aims to people across other universities. At the time, I didn’t know what that space would look like, nor did I know how to go about creating it, until I came across someone who I now see as a mentor- even though she doesn’t really know that herself! This mentor empowered and motivated me to keep going with my plans and even facilitated an open line of communication with student groups from other universities. I was shown that a cause that I’m passionate about isn’t something I should hold back on.

Being a perfectionist, I hesitated a lot and spent a lot of time delaying my plans because I wanted to deliver something good. However, once the pandemic kicked in, the feeling of extreme hopelessness overcame me. There were too many wrongs going on in different spheres that I had no control over, nor did I know how to deal with them. From the absorption of so much chaos, Social Knowbility was born. Social Knowbility is a project I’ve had in my mind for a long time. I wanted to create a space, whether physical or virtual, that supports people. I consistently delayed it, in an attempt to think more about it, give a specific shape to it - perfect it. However, the current circumstances have motivated me to start putting some things out there, whilst simultaneously working on expanding my plans. Throughout the process, I realised that I did not want something that reminded people of the red bricks that represent the education system. It didn’t need to be ‘perfect’. Rather, I wanted something that was more like mouldable clay. Something to give to people, who can then mould it into the values and parts of their identities that are important to them, and build for themselves. I realised that I didn’t need to have something that was polished up. Rather, what was needed was something that had enough space for others to build upon and build on top of. What I realised during the lockdown was how important it is for us all to utilise our skills, recognising the things that are within our remits to help where we can.

I gathered a group of committed friends and embarked on a journey, not solely to produce a few events and initiatives, but along the way, we realised that there is a lot of redefining that needed to take place to amplify the voices of the underrepresented groups. Initiatives such as these are important for university students because ‘social mobility’ has been so focused on getting people from a particular social status to the ‘ideal’ social status. What isn’t discussed is the need for a greater shift in the way we think and the way society runs.

Educational inequality has been an ongoing issue that is only worsening. The covert exclusivity of the education system impacts our thinking in a way to make us think that people within particular social groups cannot make it. That people within certain groups need to change. This is not because they aren’t intelligent enough or because their cultures limit their success. Rather, some groups are unable to progress because social structures do not cater for them, not only because of who they are and where they come from, but because enough isn’t being done to help them.

Spaces facilitating discussions on the traditionally underrepresented identities in Higher Education are needed now more than ever. The experiences of first generation students, those from immigrant families and even those who are from a low socio-economic background varies significantly from their counterparts. This project seeks to allow these various identities to appreciate themselves for what they are, acknowledge their struggles and develop the necessary skills they require to be empowered and fulfil their potential.

Red bricks and concrete should not be the images we envision when we think about education. Rather, education should trigger the image of a growing tree whose nurtured roots empower, inspire, and cultivate a difference across communities.