Peter Lampl is an unlikely class warrior.
A former private equity dealmaker and colleague of Mitt Romney, Lampl, 66, lives in London’s fashionable Chelsea district and owns homes in New York and Florida. Yet through his Sutton Trust charity, he’s challenging Britain’s class system that sustains one of the industrialized world’s lowest rates of social mobility.
Improving one’s station in life has been a source of British anxiety since Jane Austen chronicled the strivings of the middle class 200 years ago. While Americans are now focusing on the high cost of college as a barrier to opportunity, Lampl has spent 16 years trying to open the doors of the U.K.’s best universities to low- and middle-income students who don’t have prep-school educations. He’s now lobbying to have the government pay private-school tuition for worthy kids.
“We’re still stuck in this time warp of a class system,” said Lampl, who has sponsored research showing class rigidity is a drag on the U.K. economy. “If British social mobility would improve to a respectable level, it would add 4 percent to GDP because you’d have a more educated work force.”
Inspired by Ivy League colleges that reach out to poor U.S. high school students, Lampl funds summer schools for British students at universities including Cambridge and Yale, and programs to help kids break into law and real estate. Under Lampl, who also bankrolled a campaign to ban handguns in the U.K., the Sutton Trust has spent about 45 million pounds ($67 million) and published 135 research reports.
“This country discusses social mobility, access to Oxford and Cambridge, much more than it used to,” said Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College at the University of Oxford and a former journalist who has written about wealth and class in the U.K. “There’s an urgency here about the access debate. Peter must take some credit for that.”
The number of students from British state schools -- the equivalent of public schools in the U.S. -- getting into the U.K.’s top 24 universities has climbed at a slower rate in the past decade compared with private school students, according to a June report from the government Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The chances of a low-income student at a state school being admitted to Oxford and Cambridge was almost 2,000 to 1, versus 20 to 1 for a private school student, the report found.
It’s getting harder for all U.K. students to gain admission to Oxford and Cambridge as the number of international students increases. In 2012, 17 percent of students accepted as undergraduates to Oxford came from outside the U.K., up from 13 percent in 2008, according to the university. At Cambridge, the percentage climbed to 21 percent in 2012 from 17 percent in 2008, the school said.
Attending Oxford or Cambridge can be a gateway into the upper echelon of U.K. society, according to a 2009 Sutton Trust report. Almost 40 percent of chief executive officers at the 100 largest U.K. firms attended one of the universities, as did 53 percent of lawyers at the five highest-grossing law firms.
“It’s just not fair that kids from certain backgrounds are excluded from opportunities,” Lampl said. “Everyone should have the opportunity to realize their potential.”
Lampl, knighted for his work in 2003, wants the government to pay tuition at selective private schools for low-income kids. His “Open Access” plan would cost taxpayers 180 million pounds a year, and 90 schools have signed on, he said.
“From a business point of view, it makes huge sense,” Lampl said. “If you have these schools, which have the best teachers, it makes sense for the most able kids to get in there, not the richest. It’s a no brainer.”
While Open Access is well intentioned, it won’t improve social mobility because it would remove top students from state schools, said Emma Wisby, head of policy and public affairs at the Institute of Education, a college of the University of London. Other children benefit from the presence of the best students, and suffer when they leave for other schools, she said.
Getting parliament to embrace the plan will be difficult, because the major parties don’t want to be seen as elitist and favoring private schools, said David Levin, the head master of the City of London School, who supports the plan.
“This is where English class politics bedevil the argument,” Levin said. “The argument is that the government shouldn’t pluck out bright children from poor backgrounds for elite education at the expense of the many.”
The U.K. is last among 12 industrialized nations, including the U.S., Germany and France, in the rate that sons’ earnings varied from their fathers’, a measure of social mobility, according to a 2010 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2011, the U.K.’s coalition government announced a strategy that included expanding apprenticeships and a 150 million-pound scholarship fund.
“In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth: the home they’re born into, the neighborhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in a statement announcing the initiative. “Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next.”
Lampl grew up in modest circumstances, the grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Vienna who fled the Nazis in 1938. Lampl’s father, who fought for Britain in World War II, worked in a factory while studying at night, and eventually became chief engineer for a construction equipment maker.
Lampl attended Reigate Grammar School, south of London, Corpus Christi College at Oxford and the London Business School. In 1973, he joined Boston Consulting Group, where Romney was a colleague. Lampl left to work for a client, International Paper Co. and in 1983, opened his own private equity business. The Sutton Co. bought engineering and building material companies, with offices in New York, London and Munich.
Burned out with constant dealmaking, Lampl retired in his 40s and returned to the U.K. in 1994 with a fortune in excess of 50 million pounds without a clear plan of how to spend his retirement.
“I was going to play a lot of golf and maybe do a little bit of philanthropy on the side,” he said.
Lampl’s focus began to shift after the shooting of 16 school children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996. Horrified, he quietly financed a campaign that led to a U.K. handgun ban. Lampl’s unsolicited support was critical, said Gill Marshall-Andrews, head of the London-based Gun Control Network.
“He came to us and offered moral support as well as money,” she said. “It wasn’t just a one-off. It was a committed, long-term contribution.”
Lampl, who continues to fund the group, said he is appalled by gun violence in the U.S.
“Gun control doesn’t work,” he said. “Banning guns works.”
When he was told that state school pupils weren’t applying to Oxford, his alma mater, Lampl offered to fund a summer school, inspired by the outreach efforts of Ivy League colleges in the U.S. In the late 1990s, Lampl toured Harvard and other schools, sat in on admissions meetings and compared their approach with Oxford’s.
“Harvard admissions had a building, and 80 or 90 people work there,” he said. “Oxford had like two people in the basement. There was no kind of outreach. Their whole mindset was, we have plenty of good people applying here already. It’s almost like ‘it’s beneath us to find good people to apply.’”
Of the 64 students who attended that first session in 1998, 16 were later accepted by Oxford, he said. The success spurred him to found the Sutton Trust.
“I discovered just how powerful it was, without a hell of a lot of money, to change kids’ lives,” Lampl said. “I could see them transformed.”
The Sutton Trust now runs similar programs for 1,850 pupils at 11 universities in the U.K. and U.S. More than 11,000 students applied last year, he said.
Admission to Oxford from state schools climbed to 56 percent last year from 48 percent in 1998, partly because of Lampl’s work. While Oxford now runs its own summer school, Lampl was among the first people to recognize it could do more to draw low-income students, said admissions director Mike Nicholson.
“Very few universities were doing anything on access,” Nicholson said. “It was very farsighted and very perceptive.”
The summer schools demystify Oxford and Cambridge to low-income students with no exposure to them, said Leigh Fletcher, a research fellow in planetary physics at Oxford who attended a Cambridge summer school when he was 17.
“Nobody in my family had ever gone to university,” said Fletcher, 31, who earned a Ph.D. at Oxford. “Everyone knows the impression people have of Oxford and Cambridge. You feel that I’m not going to meet anyone like me, that I’m going to be the odd one out. What summer schools showed me is that people there were exactly like me.”
Hutton, the Hertford College principal, said Britain is obsessed with getting students into Oxford and Cambridge at the expense of widening access for all students. There are about 850,000 college-aged young people in the U.K. each year, and about 100,000 of them will get into a university because they come from good schools that know how the system works, he said. There’s no similar commitment by the government for the rest of the country’s secondary school students.
“That’s what’s really noxious about our education system,” Hutton said. “There’s no investment in apprenticeships, no investment in vocational training.”
In recent years, Lampl has turned his attention to higher education in the U.S., creating summer schools for British students at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says he admires the Ivy League’s approach to admissions, and its interest in giving special weight to low-income and minority applicants to build a diverse class.
“Here, we’re still where the Ivies were 40 years ago,” Lampl said.