New report challenges outdated perspective on ‘good’ universities

A new study from University Alliance shows that focusing solely on access to a certain group of universities based on historical prejudice risks stalling social mobility in Britain.

The report, Closing the gap: Unlocking opportunity through higher education, finds that the debate on social mobility and higher education in the UK has been too focused on access and, within that, access to a very small number of universities. It claims that this narrow focus results in misinformation reaching whole swathes of the population, particularly young people, and needs to change.

A key issue highlighted in the report is that while graduate careers are constantly changing, public discourse and information is not keeping pace.

The report highlights evidence demonstrating where students are really getting value added from their university experience (that is, without their degree they would not have the same success in life). It challenges the widely held belief that this only happens in traditional or ‘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.

The report calls for more effective and joined-up careers guidance, stating that careers guidance is patchy at best and biased and uninformed at worst. The result is a mismatch of aspiration and labour market opportunities. For example, one third of teenagers want to do just ten highly competitive jobs, while the ten least popular jobs pay above median wage and offer good ongoing career opportunities.

The report concludes that information, advice and guidance about higher education choices needs to take account of the changes in higher education and the labour market.

Libby Hackett, Chief Executive of University Alliance, said:

“The world is changing fast and we need to drag the public discourse about university education out of the 1970s. This is a really important study at a time when there is a lot of confusion about what is a ‘good’ university choice. There is a huge amount of misinformation out there based on historical perspectives rather than actual evidence.

“The truth is that there is a massive breadth of routes to success and huge diversity of opportunity in the global, technology-rich graduate employment market. This report highlights the fact that traditional universities no longer have the monopoly on all the leading courses across the UK and that ‘average’ graduate earnings hide a huge range of outcomes across the sector.  A wide range of outstanding UK universities now offer leading programmes with excellent employment prospects, highly relevant to the demands of living and working in a modern, global economy. Alliance universities have some of the highest rates of graduate level employment on many of the country’s leading courses.

“This report highlights the fact that we need a major rethink of what constitutes a ‘good’ choice when it comes to going to university in the UK. This is why we are calling for funding to the National Careers Service to be increased to ensure that anyone making a decision about higher education is able to find the best course for them.


Download the report.

Summary of the recommendations from the report

1. 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. 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.

2. 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. 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.

3. 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. 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.

4. 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. 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.

5. 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.  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.

Further reading