When Sir Peter Lampl set up the first Sutton Trust Summer School at Oxford back in 1997, he did so out of personal motivation. For him, gaining a place at university had been critical to his own social mobility story. He wanted the same opportunities to be available to more young people from lower-income backgrounds.

But back then, widening participation was virtually unheard of. Access and outreach programmes were few and far between. Much has changed in the past 25 years. Universities have risen admirably to this challenge and many people up and down the country work tirelessly to improve access for disadvantaged youngsters. We’re fortunate enough to see this first-hand through the work we support at over 20 long-standing university partners.

But there are challenges ahead for the sector. From student numbers, to minimum entry requirements, to admissions processes, to the costs of undergraduate study – it has perhaps never been more important for universities to prove their social mobility mettle.  And for all of us to understand the contribution they have made to expanding opportunity – and where there is room for improvement.

There are plenty of opinions out there. But until today we had limited robust data on how social mobility prospects for young people vary depending on where and what they study. Our landmark new report, published in partnership with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), calculates a ‘mobility rate’ for universities, subjects, and individual degrees, based on how many students from disadvantaged backgrounds get in, and how many of them go on to be high earners. The research uses the Department for Education (DfE) Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data from a cohort of young people who attended university in the mid-2000s to give a picture of social mobility outcomes for graduates now in their 30s.  Much has changed in the sector over this period, so the piece also projects forward for more recent cohorts.

The research reinforces the motivation for Sir Peter establishing the Trust a quarter of a century ago. Higher education has been a key driver of social mobility in this country. Young people eligible for free school meals who attend university are about four times more likely to become socially mobile and move into higher income brackets than those who don’t.  Of course, income alone does not give us a full picture of the benefits of a university education – but it does allow us to measure mobility accurately and shed some light on a heated debate.  And in our experience of supporting over 50,000 low-income youngsters, likely career outcomes loom large in their decision-making.

The analysis also shows the most selective institutions are superhighways to social mobility, offering the best chances of becoming a high earner, even once prior attainment is accounted for. But while access to these institutions has doubtlessly improved in the last two decades, they still take, on average, significantly fewer disadvantaged students than less selective universities, which holds back the overall contribution they make to the national social mobility effort.

An important, and perhaps less expected, message from today’s research is around the role that less selective universities play in social mobility. The research shows that while they often have lower average graduate earnings, many disadvantaged students who attend them go on to do well in the labour market. So, for some courses at least, the averages hide a much more substantial contribution to expanding opportunity. By taking on the most disadvantaged students, less selective institutions are effectively doing much of the ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to promoting social mobility through higher education.

Encouragingly, social mobility at English universities appears to be moving in the right direction, largely owing to the work done by universities in further widening access in recent years. Projections included in today’s report suggest we’ll see improvements in ‘mobility rates’ for many institutions over the next decade. These include Sutton Trust partner universities Cambridge, Warwick and the Royal Veterinary College.

Our findings will no doubt provide pause for thought for John Blake, the new Director for Fair Access at the Office for Students, who will help the regulator improve universities’ access and participation plans.

Universities of course can’t be expected to solve all the inequalities in our education system, but this research proves the impact they can have on social mobility. We also need to expand high quality alternatives to university so we have a diverse mix of pathways available to young people. But with a demand for more high level skills, and a demographic bulge in 18 year olds, we can’t afford to turn our backs on a sector that is integral to our future prosperity. But for that potential to be fully realised, we must make sure that access to places is fair for all students, regardless of where they grew up, what school they go to, or how much their parents earn. Today’s research is an important reminder of just why so many of us are working to achieve that goal.

Explore the data through interactive visualizations on the Sutton Trust site.


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