The slow progress of social mobility in England's universities

On the face of it, the UK’s higher education system has never been more socially inclusive. According to UCAS’ headline figures, in the wake of mid-August’s A-level results, more students from deprived areas than ever before have gained admittance into universities. What’s more, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged admissions has also fallen to an all-time low: the most advantaged are now “just” 2.5 times more likely to enter university than the least advantaged. They were three times more likely in 2012.

This is certainly positive news. The number of disadvantaged students entering higher education declined in 2012, the first year of £9,000-a-year tuition fees, but it’s now clear that this marked a temporary blip rather than the onset of some longer-term trend.

Certainly, if we take the university sector as a whole, and analyse “social mobility” purely in terms of admissions from disadvantaged students, things have never been better. This continues the trend set under Labour. But if we look more closely at the situation, a more troubling picture emerges. Three key problems are worth noting.

Firstly, a lot hangs on how we measure “disadvantage”. At present, UCAS bases its measure of disadvantage on a data set called Participation in Local Areas 2 (Polar 2), which splits the UK into equally-populated neighbourhoods and measures the proportion of their inhabitants who go on to university. These areas are then split into quintiles, with the least disadvantaged – those most likely to go onto university– in quintile 5 (Polar 2 Q5) and the most disadvantaged in quintile 1 (Polar 2 Q1). UCAS knows the quintiles of all their students’ neighbourhoods, and so can map differences in applications and admissions over time.

The problem is that the Polar 2 data was compiled in 2007. It has since been superseded by a more up-to-date measure (Polar 3), but UCAS haven’t shifted to Polar 3 because this would make it harder to make comparisons over previous years. As an excellent Channel 4 Fact Check article notes, if you measure advantage/disadvantage in different ways – say, by using the updated Polar 3 data; measuring the social class of entrants’ parents; or just simply whether students are privately/comprehensively-schooled – then the pace of improvement over the past few years looks less remarkable.

Secondly, UCAS’ statistics only analyse the university sector as a whole – they don’t break it down any further. It is therefore conceivable that the most selective, high-end universities are just as socially-exclusive as they have ever been, and that disadvantaged students have mostly been admitted to the less prestigious ones.

Indeed, a recent report by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) appears to show precisely this.  They split all universities into three equally-sized groups – “higher”, “medium” or “lower” – depending on the average UCAS entry tariff points they require for enrolment in their courses. They look at the percentage of students from among the most “disadvantaged” 40% who gain admittance into universities, defining “disadvantage” differently from UCAS.

Their findings are stark: while participation of the poorest in the least prestigious institutions has skyrocketed, this social mobility simply hasn’t extended into the most competitive third of universities. Just 3% of people from disadvantaged backgrounds enrolled at these institutions in the 2002/03 academic year. Admittances haven’t increased above this figure at any point since. The picture becomes even more concerning when you look at the actual admissions gap between rich and poor entrants. In 1994/95, the most advantaged 20% were 5.7 times more likely to enter higher entry tariff institutions than the least advantaged 40%. By 2009/10, they were 6.7 times more likely.

A positive overall picture disguises what is, in reality, a rather bifurcated situation: we’ve seen stagnation at the top of the higher education system, masked by greater social mobility at the bottom.

Thirdly, even if a greater proportion of disadvantaged students enter higher education, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see a genuine rise in social mobility and a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. On the contrary, you could well argue that because a lot of these students are going to less prestigious universities, they aren’t really getting an education that in any way changes their life trajectories. In addition, even those who do gain admittance to the high-end institutions aren’t always given the requisite help to succeed.

The context in which these disadvantaged young people find themselves could hardly be bleaker. As Alan Milburn outlined in a 2009 report on social mobility, most modern-day professionals come from considerably richer backgrounds than they did in the post-war period (see right).  

One potential reason is to do with changes in the UK labour market. In the post-war period, work opportunities were in ample supply and there were enough middle-income jobs available to enable people to climb the ladder to get high-end professional careers. Now, with the decline of the full-employment economy, we have scores of graduates chasing every professional vacancy, and with the loss of middle-income jobs often the only way to get an edge is to undertake low-paid or unpaid internships. Poorer students are in a difficult situation. Their more advantaged peers have all the wherewithal, money and connections to equip them for the tough modern-day labour market. To stand any chance of competing with them, they need universities and others to help them. Too often, I fear, they don’t.      

Evidently UCAS’ headline figures mask a rather bleaker reality. But if the government implements changes to the funding and ranking system in higher education, I think there’s scope to turn this around.  

One key reform revolves around changing the incentives universities have to admit disadvantaged students. As a recent Centre Forum report by Professor Michael Brown argued, under the current output-focused system of measuring university success, institutions actually have a disincentive to take in applicants from poorer backgrounds.

University league table rankings from the Times, Guardian and others leverage institutions’ positions heavily on admissions grades, degree outcomes and student satisfaction. But if you admit disadvantaged students, this tends to mean lower admissions grades, and students from poorer backgrounds also tend to report lower student satisfaction levels. In addition, while universities with more disadvantaged students get extra money from the government under the Student Opportunity Fund, it’s a comparatively small part of the overall funding pot and is considerably dwarfed by prestigious institutions’ private endowments.

I would therefore support several measures to help address this. As both Alan Milburn and Michael Brown have recommended, the government should lead the way in establishing its own outcomes-focused measure of university success, leveraged to compensate institutions with more poor students.

This measure alone should hopefully help change incentives, but there should also be more radical reforms of the funding given to universities. Instead of Student Opportunity Funding, Alan Milburn has advocated a “Pupil Premium” for universities to help pool social mobility funding together. I would suggest we considerably increase the funding allocations and pay for it, partially, with a financial penalty on the most socially-exclusive institutions.    

Even more radically, as Michael Brown suggests, there’s also scope to embed social mobility considerations into the way the government allocates student places to universities. Currently, the government decides each year how much funding they want to allocate to all Universities for student places, and then HEFCE allocates the places. There is scope within this system to change HEFCE’s formula so that more places are allocated to institutions which score better on the government’s own aforementioned league table.

Put simply, the higher education sector is not doing enough to enhance social mobility in England and Wales. While universities can hardly be blamed for all the inequity in terms of access to the professions, there is scope for them to do more. Taken together, these measures would help genuinely re-fashion higher education institutions as an engine of social mobility and truly help change the life trajectories of the disadvantaged students who enrol in them.

Tom Stephens is a Young Fabian member. A longer version of this article was published on his personal blog on 7 September

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