New research from the IFS in collaboration with the Sutton Trust.

Universities overall are important engines of social mobility, with the most selective institutions levelling the playing field the most amongst their graduates.

On average, lower income students are much less likely than their better-off counterparts to gain access to the most selective institutions. This means less selective ‘Post-1992’ universities, which take on the majority of low income students, have played the most significant role in driving social mobility.

This is according to new research published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in collaboration with the Sutton Trust that looks at the role universities play in social mobility in Britain. The report uses the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset to estimate a “mobility rate” for all English universities for the first time. The rate is calculated by looking at how many students from disadvantaged backgrounds get in, as well as how many of those become top earners after graduation.

The Sutton Trust has published a summary report at the same time as the IFS report. The research finds that:

  • Universities overall have a positive impact on social mobility for the students who attend them. Graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to become socially mobile and end up as a high earner than those who don’t go to university.
  • The most selective universities ‘level the playing field’ between their students the most. A young person from a disadvantaged background who attends a selective university will only earn slightly less than their more advantaged classmates at the age of 30, helping to close the ‘class pay gap’ (the higher earnings in the workplace received by those from more well-off backgrounds). However, these institutions tend to take on fewer disadvantaged students in the first place..
  • Less selective universities take on higher numbers of disadvantaged students, many of whom become mobile. Universities sometimes seen as having lower graduate outcomes are in fact contributing strongly to social mobility as their students from low-income backgrounds go on to earn more highly than they otherwise would have done.
  • Universities who score highly on the overall “mobility rate” tend to be close to big cities – especially London – where there are large numbers of high attaining disadvantaged students and proximity to strong graduate labour markets.
  • The universities with the highest “success rates” for their less well-off students – measured by the proportion of disadvantaged students who go on to become top earners – include LSE, Imperial and Oxford and Cambridge. At LSE, for example, 61% of their disadvantaged students become top earners. At Oxford it is 59% and 54% at Cambridge.

The research is based on a cohort of students who are now in their mid-30s. The focus on access in the past years – including through the work of universities, the Sutton Trust and other organisations – means we are likely to see improvements in “mobility rates” at many universities. Sutton Trust partner universities include Queen Mary, the top university in the list, and many of the institutions which have seen improvements in their rankings over the last decade, including Cambridge, Warwick and the Royal Veterinary College.

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 is so important for social mobility and the government’s levelling up agenda.”


  • The Sutton Trust was founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997 to improve social mobility in Britain. The Trust has influenced government policy on more than 30 occasions; its programmes have to date given 50,000 young people the opportunity to change their lives; and it has published over 250 pieces of agenda-setting research.

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