Least selective universities ‘performing best on social mobility’

Although Russell Group university tops new IFS/Sutton Trust ranking based on ‘mobility rate’, other selective institutions languish towards bottom of list

November 24, 2021
Miniature people walk from a low to a high pile of coins
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Modern universities with the least selective intakes have performed best in a new analysis that attempts to rank English institutions on their contributions to social mobility.

But the analysis, by the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, also found that most institutions in England – including the most selective and prestigious – are far below the level they should be.

The IFS, which partnered with social mobility thinktank the Sutton Trust on the analysis, combined data on the number of university entrants who were eligible for free meals at school with figures on graduate earnings.

In doing so they created a “mobility rate” for each institution, which essentially represents the share of a university’s graduates that were both in the top 20 per cent of earners aged 30 and were from free-school-meal (FSM) backgrounds.

According to the analysis – described by the IFS as the most “comprehensive exercise of this nature to have happened in the UK” – if students from all economic backgrounds had equal access to university, and all graduates had the same chance of reaching the top 20 per cent of earners, then the mobility rate would be 4.4 per cent.

However, just seven English institutions meet or exceed this benchmark and the average mobility rate for the whole sector, based on students who started courses in the mid-2000s, is only 1.3 per cent.

Although a Russell Group university – Queen Mary University of London – comes top of the overall ranking with a mobility rate of 6.8 per cent, many institutions from the group appear in the lower half of the ranking due to their low share of students from FSM backgrounds. They include Newcastle University (mobility rate of 0.3 per cent), the University of Exeter (0.3 per cent) and the University of Bristol (0.4 per cent).

After QMUL, London universities and the least selective post-92 institutions both tend to have the highest mobility rates, with the University of Westminster (mobility rate of 5.6 per cent), City, University of London (5.3 per cent) and University of Greenwich (5 per cent) coming next in the ranking.

Top 10 universities for mobility

Institution Mobility rate
Queen Mary University of London 6.8%
University of Westminster 5.6%
City, University of London 5.3%
University of Greenwich 5.0%
London South Bank University 4.6%
Brunel University London 4.4%
St George’s, University of London 4.4%
University of East London 4.1%
London Metropolitan University 4.0%
Kingston University 4.0%
Source: IFS/Sutton Trust

The report says that the high share of FSM pupils in London, who often do well at school and are from ethnic minority backgrounds, was “likely to explain at least part of the high access rates” of institutions in the capital.

It adds that another factor that was likely to be important was that graduates of London institutions often ended up working in the capital, where earnings tended to be higher.

To attempt to allow for this, the authors of the study also calculated the ranking after adjusting for cost-of-living differences in various parts of the country. Although this changed the mobility rate for some universities, London institutions still dominated many of the upper places and the most selective universities still “perform poorly”.

Top 10 universities for mobility (after adjusting for cost of living)

Institution Mobility rate
Queen Mary University of London 4.4%
University of Bradford 4.0%
St George’s, University of London 3.7%
Aston University 3.6%
City, University of London 3.4%
University of Westminster 3.1%
Brunel University London 2.7%
University of Greenwich 2.6%
Kingston University 2.4%
Newman University 2.4%
Liverpool John Moores University 2.3%
Source: IFS/Sutton Trust

The analysis also showed that law, computing and, in particular, pharmacology were the best-performing subject areas for mobility rates, with a high share of FSM students combined with higher earnings potential.

There was also evidence of a variation in mobility rates within institutions for different subjects, with many universities in the top 10 per cent of the mobility ranking for some subjects and the bottom 10 per cent for others.

The study also looked at how average mobility rates might have changed in the last few years, estimating that cohorts entering university in 2018 and 2019 would only have a slightly better figure of 1.6 per cent.

“There is clearly much progress still to be made, especially by the most selective universities, where access rates remain extremely low,” it says.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said the research showed that less selective universities “are really doing the heavy lifting to promote social mobility”.

“While it’s clear that significant progress has been made on access in the past decade, there remains work to be done to further open up” the most selective institutions, he added.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said the share of disadvantaged 18-year-olds entering its English universities had “increased every year for the last seven years and our members have set ambitious targets to build on that progress”.

But he added that “breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone” and required joint action by schools, businesses, government and others.


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Reader's comments (2)

The obsession with linking how much graduates earn to the 'quality' of a course needs to be dropped. It's not a true measure of 'social mobility' and, as your second table shows, is swiftly distorted by the fact that salaries in London tend to be higher than those earned by people doing exactly the same work elsewhere. Even the second table is distorted: many students I talk to at Aston University plan on taking a London-based job - not so much for the money but for the city lifestyle.
That pupils on FSM in London, going to London Universities and after graduating, staying in London for their jobs, have had the best chances of scoring well in the "social mobility" sector based on the criteria used, is no surprise. However, this "success" does not prove anything about the value added by the Universities they attended. The fact that Russell group Universities have not scored highly in the "social mobility" league tables is also of no surprise. These Universities generally demand good performance at A levels and high points scores to meet their entrance requirements which will often not be achieved by school students on Free School Meals. Graduate Salaries of Russell Group students are generally higher than average because many move to London and / or obtain jobs with those companies that pay the highest salaries. Given that many of the most able graduates seem to go into self employment / found start ups and in their first 5 to10 years will be happy to be on low salaries and more interested in medium term dividends and share values, putting a heavy weighting on salaries as a way of "identifying" the Universities that have made a positive difference for their students may be seen as the wrong metric to use.