Social mobility champion Sir Peter Lampl hailed the progress made in making the UK less elitist as he accepted an honourary doctorate at Liverpool Hope University.
The founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, which he set up to address educational disadvantage and create opportunities for working class young people, said “the dial has moved forward” since he started it in 1997.
But the 71-year-old – speaking ahead of his address at Hope’s graduation ceremony in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on Wednesday (July 17) admitted “there is still plenty of work to do”.
Last month research funded by the Trust found that top professions in the UK remain unduly dominated by people who have gone through private schools, and Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Sir Peter said: “When I started the Trust the proportion of state school pupils getting places at Oxford and Cambridge was 48% and now it’s 61% so the dial has moved forward.
“But the recent research examined the educational background of 5,000 people in influential jobs.
“It found that they were five times more likely to be privately educated than the average population.
“At the same time the UK and the USA are bottom of the table for social mobility among advanced countries, so we have to continue our work to fight this. There is plenty to do.
“It can feel like pushing water up a hill sometimes. There are a lot of people with vested interests in not having kids from poorer backgrounds getting to the top.”
The study, Elitist Britain, looked at the schools and universities attended by high achievers at the top of business, politics, the media, public organisations, creative industries and sport.
It does not name individuals but concludes that "power rests with a narrow section of the population - the 7% who attend private schools and the 1% who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge".
The report warns that social mobility is "worryingly low" and Dame Martina Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility Commission, questioned whether "this small elite" should have "such a big say in running the country".
Sir Peter, who was made a Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) , is also chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, funded by a Government grant of £135m to raise the attainment of children in the most challenging schools.
He was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, but moved with his family to Surrey when he was 11 and was educated at Reigate Grammar School.
After a successful career in business he set up his own private equity firm, the Sutton Company, and became one of the 200 wealthiest people in the UK.
He said he was inspired to start the Sutton Trust when he visited his old school and realised that “he couldn’t have got in then” as it had subsequently become a fee-paying establishment.
“A kid like me had less chance of making it than I did,” he said.
Among its activities The Sutton Trust runs summer schools for teenagers from low-income backgrounds at 13 leading UK universities and at MIT, Tale and Princeton in the US.