England’s most selective universities have the lowest levels of social mobility, according to a new report released on the same day institutions were told to work with local schools to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.
The Sutton Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) looked at what proportion of students were from low-income backgrounds at different universities and how many of these were in the top fifth of earners at the age of 30 to compare social mobility.
Their report found most Russell Group universities – traditionally the most selective – admit “very few” students who are eligible for free school meals.
Even though they had “high success rates” with low-income students going on to be in the top cohort of earners, low admissions meant they scored below average for mobility rates.
The Sutton Trust and IFS study looked at student cohorts from the mid-2000s in order to assess earnings later in life.
Dr Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group’s chief executive, said its institutions were “working hard to ensure all students have the opportunity to access the benefits of an excellent higher education in the UK”.
The proportion of 19-year-olds from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds at its universities had increased each year over the last seven years, he added.
The study found the highest mobility rates were often at less selective universities and those in big cities, with London scoring especially high – which could be down to the high share of pupils on free school meals in the capital.
The IFS said Queen Mary University of London was a “remarkable exception” to the low social mobility scores for Russell Group Universities, performing “remarkably well” on both access and future earnings for disadvantaged students.
Jo Grady from the University and College Union said: “This report shows how crucial widening access has been for those from communities traditionally less likely to go university.
“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.”
The report was published on Wednesday – the same day plans for universities were announced to support disadvantaged students both in the local community and doing degrees.
The Department for Education (DfE) said institutions will be required to help to improve education outcomes in local schools and colleges by offering activities such as tutoring.
They will also be expected to set targets to support students at university by reducing drop out rates and improve progression into high-paid jobs.
“A student’s outcome after university needs to be as important to providers as a student’s grades before university,” Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education said.
“We need to send a message to every disadvantaged young person thinking about higher education that they will have the support through school, college and university to get there and achieve a positive outcome for themselves.”
Professor Steve West, the president of Universities UK, which represents over 100 institutions, said: “Universities stand ready to play a full part in education recovery from the pandemic by reaching out further and wider to the talent of tomorrow and supporting efforts to raise school-age attainment.”