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An English Social Mobility Index: New report proposes a ranking of universities’ impact on social mobility

impact on social mobility

The Higher Education Policy Institute (@HEPI_news) is today (4 Mar) publishing a new paper, Designing an English Social Mobility Index (HEPI Debate Paper 27), which offers a methodology for comparing the contribution of individual English higher education providers’ to social mobility.

The Index challenges the often-made assumption that only particular kinds of universities make a substantial impact on social mobility, highlighting that, in the context of their individual missions, all types of institution – from research intensives to modern technical universities – can, and do, make a substantial contribution to social mobility.

The English SMI, which learns from a well-respected comparable indicator in the United States, takes account both of the numbers of affected students and their ‘distance travelled’ using existing data such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

In the report, Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), calls on universities in England to use the SMI to reflect on how, in the context of their own institutional missions, they can have the most impact on the social mobility of their graduates. He calls on the Government to invest in institutions that have high returns in their approach to social mobility.

Professor David Phoenix, author of the report, said:

‘Existing university league tables perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of behaviour which compounds social advantage – with institutions with the highest entry tariffs admitting students from the most privileged backgrounds who then inevitably go on to command the highest salaries.

‘The English SMI is an attempt to highlight, instead, the value that universities make to social mobility by showing the distance – academically and economically – they help their students to travel.

‘The results of the Index reflect the diversity of our higher education sector. Some institutions admit moderate numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and enable these individuals to achieve significant social mobility. Others accept many more of these students and, while not moving them as far, make a very substantial cumulative contribution. This model provides a mechanism for institutions to explore how best to effect social mobility within the context of their own strengths and mission.’

John Cope, Director of Strategy & Policy at UCAS, said:

“As is often said “what gets measured gets done”, and this is the case in university admissions as HEPI’s report today highlights. The report is correct that more data and better analysis is the key to making sure people have fair access to university, college, or an apprenticeship. UCAS has developed the multiple equality measure (MEM), which avoids fixating on one data set or a narrow interpretation of social mobility, instead combining a range of indicators such as gender, ethnicity, where people live, where they went to school, and parental income. By bringing these together in a single measure, we get a fuller and more rounded understanding of social mobility.

“The UCAS multiple equality measure currently shows that significant progress on levelling up opportunity has begun to slow in recent years, with the inequality gap narrowing an average of 1.1% since 2015 versus 4.4% across the previous five years. The disruption and lost learning caused by the pandemic will inevitably have had a disproportionately harmful impact on pupils from a disadvantaged background, meaning a national effort to help pupils catch up is critical if we are to avoid social mobility going backwards.”

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI and the author of the Foreword to the report, said:

‘It is often said that existing university rankings should cease because they convey an incomplete picture. This is exactly the wrong way around. We need instead to enrich our understanding of higher education institutions by looking at a bigger range of indicators.

‘The new English Social Mobility Index shows what can be achieved. It recognises institutions’ success in boosting the outcomes of a high proportion of students and also those institutions that push a smaller proportion of students a further distance.

‘The results shake up the typical league-table order and we hope they will prompt an important debate about how we evaluate the different missions of different institutions.’

The report:

Shows the ten universities making the most significant contribution to social mobility are:

  • The University of Bradford
  • Aston University
  • Queen Mary, University of London
  • Birkbeck, University of London
  • Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
  • London South Bank University
  • City University
  • Newman University
  • King’s College London
  • The University of Wolverhampton

Explains the current focus on judging universities by the salaries of their graduates fails to take into account individuals’ personal circumstances and how far they have travelled; and

Recommends universities use the SMI to reflect on their own contributions to social mobility – the measure should be promoted as an antidote to the detrimental pressure of other league tables and the Government should consider the outputs of this new measure when setting policy, including consideration of investing in those institutions which demonstrate high returns in their approach to social mobility.


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