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The Future of Technology and Social Mobility in the UK

September 7, 2023

This piece was written for IntoUniversity’s 20th anniversary report: “A Generation of Transformation- 20 years of IntoUniversity.”

The UK education system is in a state of flux, and with it the future of social mobility. The government is leaning into sectors where the UK leads—in industries such as life sciences, financial services and technology more broadly—through tweaking of the curriculum to resemble the advanced approach to mathematics found in the Far East. Similarly, a focus on Nordic principles of vocational education is seen as vital in preparing students for practical roles in the most equitable way possible, while boosting the UK’s productivity.

This focus is vital to social mobility and to countering the perception held by many in disadvantaged communities that new technologies rarely benefit them. This an issue only exacerbated by the pandemic, which shone a light on the issues faced by 22% of the UK population that sit on the wrong side of the digital divide. For many years, private education has moved with technological shifts, while state education remains laggard. Answering digital exclusion in schools, as well as homes, is critical to driving success across the whole UK. As with all systemic issues, change will require investment and willing across multiple governments to make lasting structural change that is adaptable and can incorporate new technologies in an effective way.

It is an issue that the Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan MP addressed at the Education World Forum on 8 May, highlighting that the UK’s productivity crisis is not exclusive to manufacturing, agriculture and other traditionally manual industries. Keegan argued that teachers are now so overburdened by administrative tasks that they lack time to address the responsibilities that parents and the regulator expect—hands-on teaching, thoughtful feedback and issues management. The government’s consultation on the usage, opportunities and risks programmes like ChatGPT present for education closed on 23 August 2023.

Where other markets have expressed caution over the implementation of such solutions in the classroom, the Secretary of State was bullish, lauding the potential for generative AI to remove the need for teachers to ever build lesson plans again. It is true that efficiencies made at scale could offer state education the breathing space to address systemic problems that disproportionately impact students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hours freed up might be more fruitfully focused on helping students that require the greatest support. However, teachers have already highlighted the existential threat posed by AI, if the government’s approach is too reckless. As well as the potential for large scale cheating, experts now worry about “infantilisation” and coddling of students that will, rather than narrowing educational gaps, may diminish a generation’s capacity for knowledge acquisition in the first place. Supporting the technology is the first step, however, but investing in its equal rollout, addressing impacts and regulating appropriately will be extremely costly.

The Department of Education’s interest comes in addition to a recently published white paper—“AI regulation: a pro-innovation approach”—that established the government’s goal to use technology to rebalance the economy and build the workforce of the future. The prospect of automating many tasks—particularly in energy, manufacturing and health care—is compelling and already a fact within many private companies. Similarly, leveraging AI to monitor emissions, avoid costly human error and reduce overheads can all be seen as positive steps towards responsible growth.

What then, for the millions of workers that generative and narrow AI looks likely to replace over the coming years? Clearly, there is a need for vast public investment in retraining of workforces and redefining what “skilled worker” means in modern Britain. Indeed, the Labour Party’s forthcoming position statement will likely highlight that “responsible AI” is not just about reducing the direct risks posed by future artificial general intelligence (AGI), but mitigating harms on real livelihoods caused by the narrow applications that are already available. As is its longstanding commitment, the Labour Party will look to protect jobs from rapid transformation.

The key is not to sustain jobs that will inevitably disappear, rather to ensure that all of society gains access to the resources to evolve. Further embracing of advance technologies, including the use of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) in educational settings, could create a sustainable framework for societal transformation. The prospect of students from all backgrounds receiving tailored educational programmes that harness advanced technologies, based on the needs of the individual, is seen by some as the silver bullet required to truly drive equitable outcomes in schools across the UK and in retraining millions of workers nationwide.

Neil McDonnell, Professor of Philosophy and XR Technology at the University of Glasgow, and one of the foremost voices researching immersive technologies, speaks passionately of the potential reward in removing physical constraints from educational settings:

“You can be as big as a mountain or as small as an atom; you can breathe while standing on the moon, handle Ebola virus samples in the lab, or prototype designs for a sportscar—all without the danger, injury, or cost that we find in the real world.

Like the internet before it, XR technology is at its core liberating, and just like the world wide web we can expect it to create transformative new opportunities for all.”

The impact that this could have on social mobility is clear, with McDonnell arguing that a scaled, virtual education system could help to bridge societal divides:

“One project I am involved in now aims to use XR technology to let anyone, from anywhere, curate a museum exhibition from some of the most precious and valuable objects on earth.

Anyone, from anywhere, could tell the story of their culture, of their home, of their background using objects to which they would never otherwise have access, let alone be able to bring together in one place for their own ends.

This is just one example of where the removal of physical constraints amounts to the removal of social constraints too, and I think that is one of the great promises of this new technology.”

For the millions of students without laptops, reliable internet or the physical space to effectively work at home, offering state education access to hardware en masse is intrinsic to this strategy’s success, while ensuring that in-person safeguarding and pastoral care remains, as well as less tangible benefits like inspiring young people to aspire.

The rewards of this blended approach to technology and teaching are being seen in countries outside of the UK. Indeed, some of the most compelling applications of technology can be found in Sweden, where a cultural shift towards lifelong learning is being driven by research institutions investigating virtual training scenarios. In theory, this creates a culture that is resilient to all technological shifts, with governments reaping the rewards of bold policymaking. No wonder that the UK is looking so closely at Northern Europe for inspiration.

Irrespective of who wins the next general election in 2024, it is vital that each side of the House of Commons acknowledges that the widespread rollout of advanced technologies will hugely change our lives, but that pro-innovation regulation can attract investment, boost productivity and retain public trust in communities that feel left behind. For the Labour Party, who many assume to be the next government-in-waiting, embracing technology can provide UK the competitive advantage it needs to arrest its decline and drive the kind of social mobility that is its principal cause. Indeed, future policymakers must work with businesses to show that socioeconomic diversity in the workforce, which is directly linked to social mobility, is not forgotten when building a successful corporate ESG agenda.

For APCO Worldwide, our support of companies aiming to positively shape public policy, our progressive leadership and our partnership with IntoUniversity underpins a commitment to enhancing social mobility. As we celebrate the charity’s 20th anniversary, we look forward to continuing our work with IntoUniversity to drive positive outcomes for the long term.

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