Five new studies, published today as part of a special issue of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ journal Fiscal Studies, investigate the important role played by education and skills in improving the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and hence in increasing social mobility.

Key findings include:

  • The HE funding regime to be introduced in England in September 2012 will be substantially more progressive than the current system. Roughly the poorest 30 per cent of graduates, in terms of lifetime earnings, will be better off (i.e. will pay back less) than under the current system. Graduates who do best in the labour market will lose most and the richest 15 per cent will pay back more than they borrow. Universities will also be better off, on average, and the taxpayer will save around £2,500 per graduate.
  • The highest-performing 15-year-olds from poor backgrounds are, on average, around two years behind the highest-performing pupils from privileged backgrounds. This gap in attainment amongst the most able children in England is twice the equivalent gap observed in some other developed countries.
  • Young people from the richest fifth of families are nearly three times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest fifth, but most of this difference is driven by application decisions, which are in turn largely explained by exam results. The differences do not arise because universities discriminate against poor students, given their qualifications.
  • Children whose fathers lost their jobs in the 1980s recession did less well at school and were less likely to be in work themselves in their early 20s than children in comparable families where the father did not lose his job. This suggests that the increased unemployment associated with this recession may have long-term effects on educational attainment.
  • Educational attainment has increased more rapidly amongst the well-off in the UK: comparing those born in 1958 and 1970, the proportion with a degree increased from just 9 per cent to 10 per cent amongst the poorest fifth of families, but from 28 per cent to 37 per cent amongst the richest fifth. At the same time, the pay-off to having particular qualifications has risen. Together, this suggests that the expansion of educational opportunities may have hindered rather than helped social mobility.