Despite the emphasis on the institutions of the Russell Group as drivers of social mobility, it is in fact the universities outside this group that contribute most strongly to social mobility.



Carl Cullinane examines how individual universities contribute to social mobility and finds that the access gaps are extremely variable depending on university selectivity. The more selective universities admitted relatively small enrollments from less well-off backgrounds, but these students had extremely high success rates. Post-1992 institutions, however, have welcomed a much larger number of people from backgrounds.

Universities are widely rated and ranked on a range of measures by a variety of different media and organizations. However, few of them reflect the role of universities in expanding access to opportunities. In fact, many metrics used to rank universities actively discourage hiring from more diverse populations, with underrepresented groups often being more likely to drop out or underachievement, in part due to the broader circumstances in which they face in their life.

A common measure in UK university rankings is the entry fee score. This rewards universities that have more high performing students, rather than the education they provide to those who attend them. This punishes universities for contextualizing admissions by accepting applicants with lower grades which they nevertheless obtained in the face of greater hurdles. At a time when the role of higher education comes under more scrutiny than ever before, it is vital that we factor the value of universities’ broader social contributions into this conversation.

New data made available through the intergovernmental dataset on longitudinal education outcomes allows us to examine for the first time how individual universities contribute to social mobility. Matching strong data on socio-economic background and educational pathways with linked HMRC income data for virtually the entire school population allows us to track the trajectories of young people from school, to school. university and at work, and offers an unprecedented view of the dynamics of educational inequalities and social mobility at play in universities.

This is explored in the article “Which degrees are best for intergenerational mobility?” Published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust, with the Department of Education. This research examines the role that universities, subjects and even courses play in facilitating intergenerational income mobility, for a cohort of young people currently in their 30s. The report examines social mobility based on two factors:

  • Access: the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering;
  • Success: the proportion of students who become the best employees after graduation

Socio-economic disadvantage as defined by eligibility for free school meals at age 16, a robust and commonly used measure. Mobility is defined as access to the top 20% of income measured at age 30 (although research also explores the richest 5% and 40%).


In general, disadvantaged youth who attended university were almost four times more likely to be in this high-income group than those who had not (22% vs. 6%). While this in part reflects the differences in the characteristics of the two groups, primarily their education levels, previous research has shown that, controlling for these contextual factors, returns to college are positive and higher for the lower groups. well-off. Nonetheless, a “class pay gap” in results between graduates of different backgrounds persists, even among those attending similar institutions. 40% of disadvantaged Russell Group university graduates become the top earners, but 54% of those with private training.

Access and success were generally inversely proportional across the university sector. Universities with good access tended to have lower labor market success rates, and vice versa. The more selective universities in the Russell Group had extremely high success rates for disadvantaged students attending them, but relatively low numbers were admitted. Post-1992 institutions, however, received much larger numbers of people from less well-off backgrounds.

Therefore, despite the frequent focus on Russell Group institutions as drivers of social mobility, it is actually the less prestigious universities that contribute the most to current social mobility, as the majority of these students attend these institutions. This role has been underestimated. Many institutions with low mean Labor market returns, in fact, are doing very well for the populations they serve. This impact is further accentuated if you control the characteristics of their contributions, including prior learning.

Table 1 shows the best performing universities on these measures. The list is dominated by less selective universities in and around London, and includes a mix of institutions with high entry rates and good pass rates, as well as some, such as King’s College and LSE, with high rates. lower access but exceptional success rates. Queen Mary, topping the list, admits a higher rate of disadvantaged students than the school population, with over 40% of them becoming very high earners.

Capital gains

The role of London is a key point of interest. 18 of the top 20 universities are based in and around the city. The most obvious reason for this is that graduates are more likely to live in the capital, with correspondingly high salaries. The report therefore calculates an adjusted mobility rate taking into account the location of graduates, depending on the cost of living in a territory. As the gap between London and the rest narrows and they are joined by universities such as Bradford, Aston and Newman, London still holds 13 of the top 20 places. So there are other factors at play as well.

In particular, London comfortably has the highest FSM access rates in the country (Table 2). Part of the reason for this is the high levels of high school students eligible for WSFs, meaning a larger pool to tap into for universities looking to broaden participation, as well as a high proportion of these minority students. ethnic groups that are more likely to advance. to higher education. Nonetheless, the fact that a high proportion of social mobility is occurring in and around the capital should be a cause for concern, especially in the context of the government’s leveling program.

Nevertheless, progress has been made over time. The overall mobility rate of the cohort attending university in the mid-2000s was 1.3%. For the context, if there were total equality, the rate would be 4.4%. In anticipation of the 2018 and 2019 entry cohorts, mobility is estimated at 1.6%. A modest improvement at the moment, but amid the general pessimism around social mobility, an indication that efforts to broaden participation in recent years have not been in vain. At Russell Group universities, mobility is expected to drop from 1% to 1.3% -1.4%.

These data provide unprecedented insight into educational inequalities and social mobility in higher education. It highlights the challenges of using higher education as a driver of social mobility, but at the same time presents what can be achieved by the sector. Any ranking is reductive by nature, but it helps broaden the conversation around the value and function of higher education. University rankings are not going to go away, despite what many would like, but a more comprehensive approach, accompanied by a greater focus on equity and opportunity, would ultimately be a significant step forward.


Note: For full data, see here.

About the Author

Carl Cullinane is Associate Director of Research and Policy at The Sutton Trust.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash.

User-friendly printing, PDF and email



Comments are closed.