New social mobility index shows ‘value for money’ of HE, vice-chancellor argues

The University of Bradford is the best university for social mobility, figures suggest

The government should use a new league table that ranks English universities based on their “impact on social mobility” to judge sectoral value for money, a vice-chancellor has argued.

The Social Mobility Index ranks universities using figures collected on students from lower social-economic backgrounds. The final score reflects a combination of access, continuation and graduate salary figures.

Universities that educate a large proportion of students from deprived backgrounds, who then secure high-paying graduate jobs, would, theoretically, achieve the highest scores on the SMI.

Prof David Phoenix, the vice-chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), outlined the methodology for the Social Mobility Index in a new paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi). He wrote that the report responds “to the government’s call to universities to demonstrate value for taxpayers and learners by showing their social mobility impact”.

Last year, universities minister Michelle Donelan claimed: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs.”

Today’s report somewhat contradicts that statement.

Prof Phoenix urged counterparts to use the SMI as an “antidote” to other league tables.

Existing university league tables perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of behaviour which compounds social advantage
– Prof David Phoenix, London South Bank University

Based on figures compiled for the SMI, the University of Bradford is the institution that contributes most to social mobility. The other top 10 universities in descending order were: Aston, Queen Mary, Birkbeck, Imperial College, London South Bank, City, Newman, King’s College and Wolverhampton.

Bradford and Aston scored “almost double” what the third-ranked Queen Mary achieved.

Although the SMI ranks universities according to the statistical analysis, “universities of all kinds deliver high levels of upward social mobility,” Prof Phoenix wrote. He called on the government to invest in institutions that have high social mobility returns.

Different universities make different contributions, he continued. Some offer “significant social mobility” to “moderate numbers” of students – others “move” individual students less far but do make “a very substantial cumulative contribution” to a great many overall.

The English SMI “learns” from a well-respected comparable league table in the United States. It relies on data collected from the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), which maps postcodes to a percentile of deprivation, based upon levels of income, crime, health, education, employment and access to housing and public services. It also draws upon Longitudinal Education Outcomes data, which tracks graduate earnings, and access and continuation data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The SMI tracks students from the lowest two quintiles of the IMD, which correspond to the 40% most deprived postcodes in England, to identify how many enter higher education and secure graduate employment.

Prof Phoenix said additional datasets would improve the SMI, but these are presently incomplete or hard to use.

“Existing university league tables perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of behaviour which compounds social advantage,” Prof Phoenix said, “with institutions with the highest entry tariffs admitting students from the most privileged backgrounds who then inevitably go on to command the highest salaries.”

The new league “is an attempt to highlight, instead, the value that universities make to social mobility by showing the distance – academically and economically – they help their students to travel”, he added.

Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi, said: “The results shake up the typical league-table order and we hope they will prompt an important debate about how we evaluate the different missions of different institutions.”

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, welcomed the “valuable report”, which “clearly demonstrates the role of modern universities in making real improvements in social mobility”.

He added: “Research such as this emphasises the broader contribution of higher education to individuals and communities than graduate salary returns alone.

“Social mobility is a fundamental part of any genuine levelling up agenda in the UK, and in this way, this new research is both salutary and timely.”

John Cope, director of strategy and policy at UCAS, said: “The UCAS multiple equality measure (MEM) currently shows that significant progress on levelling up opportunity has begun to slow in recent years, with the inequality gap narrowing an average of 1.1% since 2015 versus 4.4% across the previous five years.”

“As is often said ‘what gets measured gets done’, and this is the case in university admissions as Hepi’s report today highlights,” he added.

Nikki Pierce, academic registrar of top-ranked Bradford University, said the ranking was “really gratifying” and reflected “the significant commitment we make to this”. The university’s work “benefits students but it has a wider impact in terms of levelling up, benefiting local businesses and the regional economy,” she added.

This year, Bradford spent £500,000 ensuring all students had a working device for remote learning. Bradford has been named the ‘most socially inclusive HE institution in the UK’ and has one of the smallest attainment gaps between black and white students in the country at just 3%.

Related news: Profile: Prof Shirley Congdon, Bradford University’s new VC

Read more: Bradford University named most social inclusive in the UK

Related news: ‘I simply couldn’t get by just using my phone’: University of Bradford keeps students online

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