An inside look at the digital initiatives looking to boost social mobility

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett September 4, 2019
Social mobility has changed little in the UK over the last four years, leading to far too much wasted potential in a country hit by skills shortages across many sectors. As a result, we explore two initiatives that are aiming to provide members of disadvantaged communities with the support they need to follow a successful career in the digital and tech world.

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While social mobility has remained virtually unchanged in the UK over the last four years, it is now believed that workplace automation could well make the situation worse.

The concern is that low-paid workers with fewqualifications are at the highest risk of having their jobs automated out but are also the least likely to be able to access the necessary training to reskill. According to the Social Mobility Commission’s ‘State of the Nation 2019: Social Mobility in Great Britain’ report, just under half of the poorest adults have received no training since leaving school compared with only one in five of the richest.

Moreover, people from better off backgrounds are nearly 80% more likely to end up in a professional occupation than their working class peers, who even if they succeed here career-wise typically earn 17% less.

So in a bid to level the playing field, the University of Surrey is introducing an ‘innovative and digital enterprise academy’ called SurreyIDEA. Due to open its doors to the first intake of up to 30 undergraduate students in September 2020, the aim is to attract young people with an entrepreneurial bent, who are either first generation university goers or come from disadvantaged backgrounds, in order to widen participation. 

The course itself will consist of a two-year, intensive,accelerated degree programme in ‘enterprise creation’. The first year will see students obtain a grounding in a range of business disciplines along with hands-on experience of working in start-ups, corporates, incubators and accelerators to gain insights into the realities of becoming an entrepreneur. 

The second year will involve them working on any business ideas of their own with the support of mentors. Those that have not come up with a specific idea will have the option of working with some of the university’s dormant intellectual property, which has been created during the course of other PhD work or technological research. As Professor Andy Adcroft, director of SurreyIDEA and Surrey Business School’s deputy dean, explains:

Most entrepreneurial education tends to be quite theoretical and academic with a bit of practical work thrown in, but we wanted to see what happens if students focus on doing rather than knowing. If you’re young and entrepreneurial, you don’t necessarily want a traditional university experience, in which you spend three years somewhere with a long summer break. You want to get in and out and do stuff that’s useful and valuable and have a programme that’s built around what you want to do. 

In order to make the degree more accessible, students will not be expected to pay fees but will be awarded scholarships instead. SurreyIdea already has some philanthropic funds in place to help but is also talking to a number of charities and community organisations about financing such scholarships in future.

Building a sustainable approach

Over time, the aim is to ensure the degree programme becomes self-financing though. To this end, the academy plans to take varying degrees of equity in each student’s business idea, before introducing them to a range of private equity and angel investors to help take it forward. Adcroft explains:

We’ll co-own the business they create, so it’s about us investing in young people rather than paying for their education. It’s also about making things sustainable and providing an income stream to fund what we want to do in future. There’s a risk involved and we understand that if 25 students come in, there won’t necessarily be 25 businesses come out the other end - and certainly not 25 successful ones. But we hope there’s enough to support those that don’t take off, while also looking for alternative means of financing without having to give up the experimental side of things.

As to how the academy plans to find suitable candidates, the objective is to work with the University’s outreach department as well as large further education colleges, charities and community organisations around the UK to identify potential. An ‘Idea in a day’ workshop will also be taken around 20 secondary schools and sixth form colleges before Christmas in order to raise the academy’s profile and start building a solid talent pipeline for the future.

Entry requirements, meanwhile, will be based on potential rather than academic performance. Applicants will be assessed over the course of several residential days at the university using project-based exercises and psychometric testing to evaluate their potential and drive. Both their travel and accommodation costs will be paid for and the aim is to have a full list of students in place by April 2020.

The next step will be to hold a summer school run bymentors to help them prepare for university life, whilebusiness mentors will also be made available to help polish any entrepreneurial ideas they have come up with so far. Adcroft says:

It’s designed as a nine-to-five programme, so that people have evenings and weekends to do a part-time job or deal with caring responsibilities. There’ll always be peaks and troughs, but the idea is to create a challenging environment that is very professional and demands a lot of them but that is also supportive of their needs too.

Another organisation that is trying to help people from troubled backgrounds is Code Your Future. It provides refugees and asylum seekers, and more recently local people from deprived communities, in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Rome with six-month-long, part-time programming courses. 

Starting a new life

German Bencci, the charity’s co-founder who has a tech background himself, explains the rationale:

There are some organisations already helping refugees with support to cover their essential needs, but our question was ‘what opportunities are they being offered to start a new life?’ They come with experience and knowledge and potential, but if they don’t have the right help, it’s hard. So we asked what could tech do? If you learn programming, it’s quite democratic and universal,and large companies will hire you. They won’t pay too much attention to your educational background or where you’re from. If you have tech and soft skills, they’ll hire you, and employment in a highly-skilled field becomes an enabler of lifelong, lasting change.

The programme itself consists of one eight-hour day of face-to-face training per week as well as 25 hours of flexible remote learning to ensure participants can fit in study around family and other commitments.

But according to Bencci, just as crucial as developing digital expertise is focusing on soft skills, such as team-working and problem-solving. Ahmet, one of the organisation’s students who had only very basic software skills on joining the course, agrees:

Everyone that works and volunteers on the course was eager to help me develop. This was one of its biggest strengths as it gave me the comfort and support I needed in order to achieve my course goals…Alongside building my technical knowledge, I also learnt how to develop softer skills, including an ability to communicate effectively within different teams. These skills will be very useful when applying for different roles within companies and will set me up to work effectively with different teams.

Just as important as skills development though, believesBencci, is to create:

A community of learners, where people can feel comfortable and others treat you with respect. The underlying message is that it’s not just about coming to class once a week. It’s saying we care about you, we want everyone to learn together and support each other, which means that one person’s success is everyone’s success.

To ensure the course is accessible to all interested parties,who are referred to it by charities and community groups, it is provided on a free-of-charge basis. Travel, childcare and mobile internet expenses are also funded, if required, and second-hand laptops are donated by companies, such as Ticketmaster and Skyscanner. 

Code Your Future likewise has partnerships with firms, such as and Capgemini, which is its first major blue chip sponsor and funded its latest training course for 25 learners in JavaScript programming in London. The consultancy’s aim is to hire 10 of them as permanent junior programmers. Sally Caughey, its digital inclusion lead, explains:

According to the United Nations, there are over 120,000 refugees in the UK. Many lack access to vocational training. Over 50% with a formal education and qualifications remain unemployed for several years. So it made complete sense to match our digital inclusion programme with our commitment to diversity. It’s important that people understand that academic qualifications come in different forms and we need to start representing minority groups as well. With the digital skills gap being quite prevalent in the UK, our aim is to marry up these dual objectives and ensure these future employees have the best technical understanding to thrive, wherever they come from.

My take

One point that is clear from both initiatives is that, however well-meaning the intention, simply providing people from disadvantaged communities with access to technical skills training is not enough to provide them with the leg-up often required to succeed. Instead it is vital to think through their wider needs both in terms of day-to-day and future support, whether we are talking about furnishing them with the bus fare they need to attend class or the soft skills required to flourish in a professional environment. One form of support without the others will never be enough.