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What Do We Mean By Social Mobility?


Social mobility, higher education and the 21st Century

There is a strongly held narrative in the press and public discourse that social mobility and higher education (HE) is solely about getting a small number of students from non-traditional backgrounds into a very small number of elite institutions but this narrative is misguided.


Why this policy is misguided

  • Policy that concentrates in this area will only ever have a limited impact on wider social mobility. Although access to Russell Group institutions continues to be skewed according to socio-economic status, these institutions only take 20% of university students each year.
  • This narrative encourages students to narrow their options based on prejudicial advice about a small number of universities and limited career options, just at a time when we should be encouraging more people to go to university. Youth unemployment in the UK has reached nearly 1.4million, 18.9% of the youth population and more jobs than ever before now require a HE qualification. Our international competitors are continuing to invest heavily in expanding HE despite their own budget deficits whereas in England we have had to reduce the number of places available to control expenditure.
  • The return on investment in higher study is significant but there is no evidence that attending a Russell Group institution increases opportunities or lifetime earnings. In fact, evidence shows that the type of university a student attends has a statistically insignificant effect on their success and lifecycle earnings once you account for previous attainment and family background.


The impact
The current narrative stifles potential by encouraging people to make decisions based on misinformation and prejudicial advice. Effective progression routes through to high level qualifications and continuing professional development are essential in order to tackle rising inequality and to ensure that people do not get trapped at the bottom of the employment market. Social mobility in our future, hourglass economy, relies on people getting comprehensive and impartial information about careers and higher education.


Our position
University Alliance believe passionately that more can be done to increase social mobility. This must start with a much broader look at the opportunities and transformational experiences offered by universities across the UK while keeping them accessible to all who can benefit.


Policy asks: Quick wins

  • Establish a single, independent body to offer improved information and guidance in schools, on behalf of universities. There is no longer a statutory requirement for schools to offer high quality and unbiased careers advice. This has led to a dramatic reduction in careers guidance. Eight out of ten schools have reduced the careers advice they offer and a Parliament select committee found a “worrying deterioration” in the overall standard of careers advice. A lack of information has also been identified as a considerable barrier to widening participation and up-skilling. We need to broaden the definition of social mobility and renew the commitment for more people to have access to high quality information.
  • Focus on ‘selective courses’ rather than institutions. Referring to ‘selective institutions’ is unhelpful in the context of the HE market. The majority of courses are selective, indeed a wide range of courses across the sector are highly selective and the reverse is also true, with almost every university in the country entering clearing to fill places in some courses.
  •  Recognise new and emerging professions. Prestigious jobs in the creative industries, where the UK is a market leader, employ 2.5 million people (more than financial services, advanced manufacturing and construction together) and generate £70,000 every minute according to the Government. New and emerging professions (which many students from non-traditional backgrounds are unaware of or misinformed about) must be applauded and promoted if we are to make the most of our human capital and maintain our international market position in these industries.


Policy asks: Longer term

            • Increase student numbers. Given the high correlation between social background and attainment, Government aims for social mobility will always be negatively affected in a system where places are restricted. It is therefore essential to improving social mobility that in the longer term we continue to explore how total growth of the sector can be achieved despite tight restrictions on Government expenditure.
            • Maintain funding for widening participation activity. The 2013 spending review has reduced funding for widening participation by at least £45m. This funding is crucial to the Government’s aims on aspiration and fairness. It supports the genuine added cost of recruiting and retaining widening participation students. Funding for widening participation activity must be maintained if universities are to recruit diversely and support students to succeed.


Case study – Sophie Cousens
Sophie, an AAA student, battled with her teachers to apply for a place on the world leading course of Marine Biology at Plymouth University. Plymouth has won prizes for its world-class marine and maritime research, teaching and training, and boasts excellent resources including its own Marine Diving Centre. Sophie said, “I had a bit of a battle on my hands…but it was absolutely the right course for me to do.”


For more information contact:

Daisy Hooper
Policy and Projects Manager