Closing the Gap: unlocking opportunity through higher education

Image by Darren Harmon

Image by Darren Harmon

University Alliance believe that the social mobility debate in the UK needs a new focus. Higher education is a critical engine of social mobility. The added value delivered by universities, such as Alliance universities, which accept students from a diverse range of backgrounds and achieve some of the highest graduate employment rates, is a great success story. Through transforming the lives of the many, not the few, these universities are making a huge contribution to social mobility in the UK as well as the economy.

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However, the debate on social mobility and higher education in the UK has been focussed elsewhere. There has been too much emphasis on access to higher education, with relatively little debate about access to employment beyond university. Furthermore, the focus on access has been very narrowly defined in relation to a small number of universities, an emphasis that fails to recognise outstanding courses that exist right across the higher education sector.

The debate on social mobility needs to be dragged out of the 1970s to recognise the full breadth of routes to success and the huge diversity of opportunity in a global, technology-rich graduate employment market.

Key points

1. Social mobility is both a social and economic imperative but we need to look harder at how we create progression routes for all – how we help students to develop the additional attributes, including social capital, that they need to succeed at university, in the workplace and in later life. This means ensuring there is no cap on student numbers – poorer students will always be disadvantaged in a system that restricts places.

2. We need to move beyond access and include student success but government funding to support this activity is just 2% of the total HE budget and is constantly under threat. We need to maintain or even increase this funding (known currently as Student Opportunity funding).

3. Graduate careers are changing all the time but public discourse is not keeping pace. The result is a mismatch of aspiration and labour market opportunities. For example, one third of teenagers want to do just 10 highly competitive jobs, while the 10 least popular jobs pay above median wage and offer good progression opportunities. Employer engagement in education is a crucial part of tackling this problem.

4. We need to recognise where value is really being added – this is often beyond traditional and elite universities. While a small (and shrinking) number of traditional professions recruit from only a select group of universities there is evidence, once you control for prior attainment and family background, that attending an ‘elite’ university is not inherently ‘better’ for the student than attending any other university in terms of their future earning potential. IAG about higher education choices needs to take account of this reality.

5. The social mobility agenda needs to expand to include currently ‘forgotten’ students – postgraduate, part time and those wanting to up- or re-skill. Alongside this, we need to value vocational and professional training, not just academic. It is a good combination of the two that will enable our economy and society to thrive.

Policy Recommendations

In a world that is changing rapidly we need to think differently about how we support social mobility through higher education.

1. Neither social mobility nor the maximisation of economic capacity and productivity will be fully realised through higher education in a system where numbers are restricted.

We should continue to support widening participation to higher education for all. This means ensuring universities continue to work hard to broaden their intake and that there remains no cap on university student numbers.

2. Non-traditional students face a range of barriers to participating and succeeding in higher education. Yet the Student Opportunity fund, just 2% of the £13bn spent on HE, student loans and the science and research budget, is the only funding stream awarded to institutions based on the genuine added cost of recruiting and retaining these high cost students.

We should seek to increase the Student Opportunity fund. This fund is essential if we are to ensure that high cost students succeed in higher education and beyond, not just get through the door in the first place. Any increase in this funding will have positive effects on our country’s commitment to social mobility and would be a sound investment decision in the long-term.

3. To ensure the best graduate outcomes students need up-to-date information and experience of labour market opportunities, particularly as it relates to different local labour markets.

Universities should do everything they can to engage with a diverse range of employers, to strengthen links between education and the needs of the economy and to offer the best opportunities to their students and graduates, whatever background they may come from.

4. Misinformation about future opportunities results in skills mismatches and in students failing to achieve their potential. And misinformation particularly affects students from less well-off backgrounds. While there is a wealth of information already out there, students continue to lack meaningful signposting to help them navigate such complex and high volumes of information.

We need to boost the National Careers Service by ensuring it is well resourced to work in partnership with HEIs, schools and employers. Effective careers Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) requires a joined up approach, which can keep pace with labour market developments and new career and learning opportunities.

5. We need to ensure loan access for all students in higher education to remove the barrier of upfront costs. This is particularly needed for postgraduate and ELQ students. An income-contingent lifetime loan allocation will maximise efficiency, allowing loan access to every student whilst not diverting government funding or requiring supply constraints to be put in place in this part of the system.

We recommend introducing a lifetime loan allocation to support re-training and re-skilling in line with international best practice. We recommend that this is an income-contingent loan that is repaid after graduation and that low earners are protected but that the cohort as a whole repay in full. In other words, this is a non-subsidised loan system.

Further reading