Universities are seen as crucial engines of social mobility, and perhaps with good reason. Individuals eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in year 11 who attended university are almost four times more likely to be amongst the highest 20% of earners at age 30 than those who did not, and around ten times more likely if they attended one of the four most selective universities in the country.
However, students from poor families are much less likely to go to university in the first place. During the mid-2000s, just 16% of FSM students attended any university, compared to 75% of the privately educated. The gaps are even starker at the most selective institutions. For some of these, more than half of the student body at some of these institutions was privately educated, while fewer than 2% qualified for FSM when they were at school.
Today, in by far the most comprehensive exercise of this nature to have happened in the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies is publishing a new report, in partnership with the Sutton Trust, that ranks universities in terms of their contributions to social mobility. It looks both at the share of students from low-income backgrounds at the university, and whether those students have moved up to the top of the income ladder. Specifically, for each university it calculates a “mobility rate”, which shows the proportion of students at the university who were FSM eligible and are amongst the top 20% of earners at age 30.
Its key findings are:
- The average mobility rate across all universities based on those who entered in the mid-2000s is 1.3%. This means just over one in every 100 graduates was eligible for FSM when they were at school and is in the top 20% of earnings at age 30. This compares to the 4.4 students in every 100 graduates we would get if there were equal access to university for all income groups and undergraduates from all income backgrounds had the same chance of making it into the top 20%.
Share of FSM students students
Share of FSM students reaching top 20%
Most selective Russell
Post-1992 (more selective)
Post-1992 (least selective)
- Many of the most selective and prestigious universities do not do well on this ranking. While students from low-income families who go to Russell Group institutions do very well in the labour market, these universities admit very few FSM students, leading to an average mobility rate of just 1%.
- Overall, the least selective post-1992 institutions do best, often combining relatively high access rates of FSM students (more than one in every ten students) with slightly below average rates of reaching the top 20%. More selective post-1992 have the lowest mobility rates. They take in fewer FSM students than pre-1992 universities, but have far worse labour market outcomes.
- There is a lot of variation within these broad university groups, with institutions based in London doing particularly well and making up the entire top 10. They take on high numbers of disadvantaged students and send a significant share of them to the top of the earnings distribution. Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) – the only Russell Group university in the top 10 – is the highest ranked university with 6.8% of its graduates coming from FSM backgrounds and reaching the top 20% of the income distribution.
- Bradford, Aston, Newman University (Birmingham), Birmingham City and Liverpool John Moores are the highest mobility institutions which are not based in or around London.
Share of FSM students
Share of FSM students reaching top 20%
Top five universities for mobility
London South Bank
Top five outside London
Liverpool John Moores
- The high ranking of the London universities is only partially explained by the fact that many of the graduates from London universities go on to live and work in the capital, where graduate wages are high compared to other parts of the country.
- The large number of students from low-income families with good prior attainment in the London area is likely to be an important factor in the high access rates of London institutions, as is the high share of non-white students, who are more likely to attend university.
The reports’ other findings include:
- There is a low correlation between mobility rates and the average earnings returns for each university estimated in previous research. Universities with the best average earnings returns often have poor access rates, resulting in low mobility rates. Many of the highest mobility rate institutions have low earnings returns.
- Pharmacology, computing and law are the best performing subjects in terms of mobility. Pharmacology is the standout performer with a mobility rate three times the average.
- There is a lot of variation in mobility within universities across the subjects offered. Most universities with low overall mobility have some degree courses with high mobility rates.
- Access to university for FSM students has improved, but slowly. The average mobility rate of 1.3% for the mid-2000s cohorts is only projected to have increased to 1.6% now. This remains well below the 4.4% benchmark, suggesting that there is much progress still to be made.
Elaine Drayton, a Research Economist at the IFS and author of the report said: “These results document an important contribution that universities make to society beyond average earnings returns. Many low selectivity institutions offer low earnings returns on average but make a positive contribution to social mobility. This highlights the importance of using other metrics in conjunction with earnings returns when determining value in higher education.”
Laura van der Erve, a Senior Research Economist at the IFS and author of the report said: “Students from low-income families who study at the most selective universities do very well in the labour market. The problem is that very few low-income children make it onto those courses in the first place. In the mid-2000s, children on FSM were nearly 100 times less likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, and around 25 times less likely to do a medicine degree, than their privately educated peers. And despite a lot of resources being directed at this issue, progress over the last 15 years or so has been slow.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Universities are among the most powerful engines for social mobility that we have. Today’s ground-breaking new research confirms the role they play in enabling disadvantaged young people into well-paying and rewarding careers. In particular, less selective universities are really doing the heavy lifting to promote social mobility. However, the findings also highlight significant challenges. Disadvantaged students who go to the most selective universities are more likely to become socially mobile. But 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 these institutions. Today’s research is a reminder of why access and outreach, as well as progress at university, is so important for social mobility and the government’s levelling up agenda.”
See full list of university social mobility rankings and filter by course and subject >>> https://www.suttontrust.com/universities-and-social-mobility-data-explorer-rankings/