Universities have often been described as “engines of social mobility” – not least by former UK universities minister Jo Johnson.
But the Social Mobility Commission’s annual State of the Nation report, published last week, warned that social mobility in the UK has remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014.
That is despite an increase in both the number and the proportion of students from low-income families entering university. The figure of 26 per cent who now do so still compares unfavourably with the total of 43 per cent for better-off young people, but it is close to the 2020 target of 28 per cent set by then prime minister David Cameron in 2015 – and a marked improvement on 2009’s 13.6 per cent.
Still, the commission’s report found that those from better-off backgrounds are nearly 80 per cent more likely to attain a professional job than those from working-class backgrounds.
One reason is that “once at university, disadvantaged students are much more likely to drop out, due to the costs of studying and cultural barriers”. But the report also notes that even when they stay the course, “universities appear to be failing less well-off students. Graduates who had been eligible for [free school meals] were more likely to be unemployed following graduation, and were paid less, with the pay gap rising over time.”
Why? Part of the answer is surely that, as the report notes, poorer students are “very unlikely to go to the most selective universities. Indeed, in another report published last week, the Office for Students found that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are 15 times less likely to enter the most selective universities than those from the most advantaged backgrounds.
In a country with an extremely hierarchical university system, this matters.
So if expansion of the university system is not necessarily the solution to social mobility, what about expansion of higher-status universities? As last week’s lead news story revealed, while some Russell Group members have expanded considerably in recent years, others have contracted. The University of Oxford’s undergraduate intake of 3,300 in 2016 was just 50 more than in 2006.
But Russell Group expansion would probably only result in more middle-class participation unless greater use was made of contextual admissions. This continues to be derided as “social engineering” by some, but both the Social Mobility Commission and the OfS reports call for it to be embraced more enthusiastically.
Not everyone will be convinced. In this week’s lead opinion, former headmaster Martin Stephen writes that the failings of schools are such that “disadvantaged students in England still largely lack the necessary knowledge base to allow them to thrive on a demanding university course”. Nor is he a lone voice. Last year, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, warned that lowering entry requirements risked “setting up pupils to fail”.
But the OfS report points to recent research suggesting that those risks may be overstated. There is clearly plenty of devil in the detail of this to be ironed out.
The OfS has also committed to overhauling the admissions system, and a move to post-qualification admissions could also help disadvantaged students, given the evidence that their A-level grades are often underpredicted.
A more radical alternative would be to do away with selection entirely – at least above a certain attainment threshold. This idea received support at a debate at the UCL Institute of Education last month on diversifying access. One of the panellists, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that it was hypocritical of academics at highly selective universities to criticise selective state schools.
It is worth reflecting that selection is not inevitable, even at highly prestigious universities. That is brought home by this week’s cover feature on the Netherlands, where completion of the post-high school diploma earns students the right to enrol at any of the country’s highly regarded universities, with selection used only for the 11 per cent of courses where demand exceeds places.
Counter-arguments include that non-selective higher education holds back the most able students, or leads to very high dropout rates, as in France. However, Tim Blackman, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and an advocate of comprehensive higher education, points to evidence that mixed ability teaching achieves better results overall. Again, there is a lot of devilish detail in that question.
But should universities really be expected to transform their practices to compensate for inequalities not of their own making? In response to a recent article by former education secretary Justine Greening suggesting that universities are “about” social mobility, Cambridge historian Peter Mandler tweeted: “If the public believes that universities are ‘about’ social mobility, this is in large part due to politicians telling them so, often to distract from other factors – such as growing income inequality – which they either can’t or don’t wish to control.”
It is hard to disagree. It is also true that, in isolation, university admissions policies are no social mobility magic wand. But Mandler was also surely right to add that “of course universities should do what they can to narrow [the] participation gap and give more equal access to graduate jobs”.
Greater use of contextual admissions would be a good place to start.