Clean sweep for London universities in social mobility top 10 – IFS report

The IFS report on English universities, published in partnership with the Sutton Trust, rates the least selective post-1992 institutions as the most likely to foster social mobility

A major new report on social mobility in English universities is published today (24 November) and places Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) at the top of its mobility index.

London institutions dominate the upper reaches of the rankings. Indeed, the top-rated university beyond the capital and immediate surrounds, Bradford, places only 13th.

Another key factor in a graduate’s chances of being socially mobile relates to the type of university they attended. The least selective of the post-1992 universities score double the ‘mobility rate’ (2%) of those in the Russell Group in the report, published by the IFS in partnership with the Sutton Trust.

The average mobility rate across all universities based on those who entered in the mid-2000s is 1.3%.

The rate is calculated by showing the showing the proportion of students at the university who were eligible for free school meals (FSM) in year 11 and rank among the top 20% of earners at age 30.

Illustrating HE’s role in fuelling social mobility, FSM-eligible individuals 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.

During the mid-2000s, just 16% of FSM students attended university, compared to 75% of peers schooled in the independent sector. The gaps are even starker at the most selective institutions. For some of these, more than half of the student body was privately educated, while fewer than 2% qualified for FSM at school.

We are constantly looking at how we can widen access to even more students with the potential to succeed – Stephanie Marshall, QMUL

“These results document an important contribution that universities make to society beyond average earnings returns,” said Elaine Drayton, a research economist at the IFS and author of the report.

“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.”

According to the report – claimed to be “by far the most comprehensive exercise of this nature to have happened in the UK” – the lowest mobility rates arise in the more selective post-1992 universities. They take in fewer FSM students than pre-1992 institutions but have significantly worse labour market outcomes.

University type Share of FSM students students Share of FSM students reaching top 20% Mobility rate
Most selective Russell 1.7% 59.0% 1.0%
Russell Group 2.6% 38.4% 1.0%
Pre-1992 universities 5.3% 27.8% 1.5%
Post-1992 (more selective) 4.9% 17.7% 0.9%
Post-1992 (least selective) 10.7% 18.5% 2.0%
All 5.6% 22.3% 1.3%

The degree of variation within these broad university groups is illustrated by the fact that QMUL is a member of the Russell Group.

The high ranking of London universities is partially explained by the fact that many of their graduates stay in the city and receive relatively high wages compared to other parts of the country. See also the large number of students from low-income families with good prior attainment in the London area, and the high share of non-white students, who are more likely to attend university.

Rank University Share of FSM students Share of FSM students reaching top 20% Mobility rate
Top five universities for mobility
1 QMUL 16.1% 42.2% 6.8%
2 Westminster 22.5% 25.0% 5.6%
3 City 15.0% 35.1% 5.3%
4 Greenwich 20.0% 24.8% 5.0%
5 London South Bank 25.7% 18.0% 4.6%
Top five outside London
13 Bradford 20.3% 16.4% 3.3%
14 Aston 10.4% 31.4% 3.3%
25 Newman 13.9% 13.2% 1.8%
27 Birmingham City 12.6% 13.5% 1.7%
28 Liverpool John Moores 10.0% 16.9% 1.7%

It should be remembered that, while the influence of education on social mobility is long-proven, the impact made by individual universities is altogether harder to pin down. In March we reported on a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute which ranked the University of Bradford as the institution contributing most to social mobility. Both it and second-placed Aston scored “almost double” on a social mobility index compared to third-placed QMUL, the IFS’ top-ranked university.

Other key findings in today’s report include:

  • Pharmacology, computing and law are the best performing subjects in terms of mobility, with pharmacology boasting a mobility rate three times the average
  • Most universities with low overall mobility have some degree courses with high mobility rates
  • Access to university for FSM students has barely improved. The average mobility rate of 1.3% for the mid-2000s cohorts is only projected to have increased to 1.6% now, well below the 4.4% benchmark

“Universities are among the most powerful engines for social mobility that we have,” said Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust.

“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.

“While it’s clear that significant progress has been made on access [to the most selective institutions] in the past decade, there remains work to be done to further open [them] up. 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.”

His words were echoed by UCU general secretary, Jo Grady.

“This report shows how crucial widening access has been for those from communities traditionally less likely to go university,” she said. “The new Secretary of State for Education needs to read it carefully and take stock of the huge contribution universities, especially those that are less selective, make towards social mobility.

“It is clear that much work is still needed to ensure that students from all backgrounds have equal access to different courses and institutions. This is further evidence of the need for a proper overhaul of university admissions to ensure that inaccurate predicted grades don’t determine life chances.

“The report shows that London universities are particularly good at supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and adds further evidence that the decision to scrap London weighting was a ‘levelling down’ of social aspiration and must be reversed.”


Read more: Postgraduate study still “out of reach for many students” – Sutton Trust


Stephanie Marshall, vice-principal (education) at QMUL said she was “hugely proud” that the university was top-ranked by the IFS report.

“A university education is more than the certificate of graduation,” she said. “As this report highlights, it fosters social justice and mobility, and provides a much-needed platform for people from all walks of life to contribute to society.

“Ninety per cent of our undergraduate students are from state schools, 23% are from households with less than £10,000 annual income, and over half are the first in their family to enter higher education. And we are constantly looking at how we can widen access to even more students with the potential to succeed, who have to overcome various barriers for the education they deserve.”

QMUL was the only Russell Group university to feature in the report’s top 10. Dr Tim Bradshaw, the group’s CEO, pointed out that “the proportion of 18-year-olds from some of the most disadvantaged areas entering [our] universities has increased every year for the last seven years and our members have set ambitious targets to build on that progress.

“Equally important is the support students from under-represented backgrounds receive once they get to university so they can succeed in higher education and later in life. The priority our members give to this is reflected in the levels of continuation rates, degree attainment and future earnings for under-represented students attending our universities.

“Breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone. Alongside ambitious efforts from universities we have also recommended a new national strategy to join up efforts by schools, businesses, government and others to address disadvantage throughout the education system.”

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