HE social mobility ranking relies overly on salaries – Expert

A league table ranking English universities by their success in getting students from less advantaged backgrounds into well-paid jobs puts the University of Bradford in top spot. But a leading expert in widening access to higher education has questioned relying on salary levels to judge graduate success.

The 2023 English Social Mobility Index (SMI) compiled by London South Bank University and published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) saw the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire and Aston University in Birmingham take the top two slots for the third year running.

London-based higher education institutions took the next four spots, with City, University of London, moving up from sixth to third place and King’s College London (fourth), London School of Economics and Political Sciences (fifth) and Queen Mary University of London (sixth).

In fact, half the top 20 universities in the 2023 Social Mobility Index were based in the capital, an achievement celebrated by Dr Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher, who told University World News:

“Despite operating in a region with the highest wealth inequalities in England, and in areas with very high levels of deprivation, London’s higher education institutions have proved themselves once again as remarkable engines of opportunity, taking in relatively high rates of disadvantaged pupils and preparing them well to secure fulfilling and well-paid careers.”

‘Hampered’ by short-term measures

However, an expert in widening participation in higher education issued a word of caution about the rankings – despite telling University World News that the SMI “makes a useful contribution to understanding the progression of students from low-income areas”.

Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network and head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London, questioned whether the SMI necessarily shows the universities that are making the biggest contribution to social mobility.

He claimed that the index is “hampered by the short-term nature of the measure of outcomes and the reliance on employment related indicators of outcome”.

Atherton, who is convenor of the World Access to Higher Education Day, believes there are limitations in what can be gathered from salary data immediately after higher education.

He said: “The reason that London universities do particularly well, especially the most selective ones, is the strength of the London graduate labour market offering relatively higher starting salaries.

“So, while the SMI is valuable, social mobility can only be fully understood further down the line and it is not all about salary levels anyway.”

Wider variables should be considered

He suggested that “job satisfaction or the extent to which you feel your role is making a valuable contribution to society” should also be taken into account, and that some “wider variables” should be considered, such as those found in the Graduate Outcomes survey produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

The survey is used by the government, researchers and others to understand the higher education sector and the state of the graduate labour market. As well as including graduate salaries and work locations, it asks how graduates feel about their activities at the time of the survey – questions commonly referred to as graduate voice questions.

The latest results of the graduate reflections section of the survey covers 2020-21 and shows a fall in the proportion of graduates agreeing with questions about whether their current activity fits with their future plans, with only 77% agreeing with this compared to 80% in 2017-18.

Postgraduates were more likely to agree or strongly agree that they were utilising what they learnt during their studies in their current activity rather than undergraduates. Those who studied part-time were also more likely to agree with the statements than full-time students.

When breaking down graduates in full-time employment by domicile, UK graduates were more likely to give positive responses than those from non-UK countries.

Subjective questions tell more

In a HEPI blog analysing what these ‘other Graduate Outcomes Survey questions’ tell us about graduate success, Chris Jones, employability manager for the school of architecture, design and the built environment at Nottingham Trent University, said the subjective questions in the survey address levels of anxiety, happiness and how far graduates are satisfied with their lives.

“These questions tend not to be widely used or commented on either within or beyond universities, although HESA provide insightful analysis of these responses on a national basis annually,” he wrote.

Jones is not alone in suggesting that these reflections offer a more thorough definition of ‘graduate success’ despite the current institutional and policy level ‘firm focus’ on employment outcomes and earnings to monitor graduate success.

In an earlier blog for HEPI, Dr Doug Cole, associate director –academic – in employability services at Nottingham Trent University and Jon Down, from Grit Breakthrough Programmes – which delivers intensive personal development and coaching in UK universities – said it is no longer enough to support graduates into a specific job as “we know a job is no longer for life”.

They wrote: “Students now are having to think beyond linear careers and into parallel careers (a series of simultaneous, often fixed-term or zero-hours roles)” and job hunting is likely to be “a continuous process with some form of unemployment permanently on the horizon”.

With remote working and the advance of AI challenging established notions of the workplace itself, “graduate readiness, then, has become about preparing students to navigate a complex and shifting world, much more about the kind of people we are and will develop into, rather than simply what we should know or can technically do,” they said.

Social distance travelled measured

Professor Dave Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, which compiled the Social Mobility Index, said the SMI attempts to measure the social distance travelled by graduates at English higher education institutions by combining access, continuation and outcomes measures for undergraduates.

He said: “While numerous studies demonstrate that your personal circumstances and where you grow up have a strong bearing on your likelihood of achieving upward mobility, the 2023 Higher Education Social Mobility Index shows that your background does not have to determine your future.

“Universities of all types, up and down the country, are countering expectations by consistently delivering improved economic prosperity for some of our most disadvantaged students.

“The government has repeatedly expressed its desire to tackle the regional inequalities holding communities back. One of the simplest ways they could do this is by celebrating the success of these institutions in breaking through international norms and ensuring that, in a climate of ever-dwindling resources, we don’t let a lack of finance inadvertently reinforce the glass ceiling and stifle this incredible pipeline of talent.”

Most impactful thing HEPI does

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told University World News that he believed the Social Mobility Index, now in its third year, was “one of the most impactful things HEPI does”.

He said: “League tables are controversial and have pros and cons but they are not going to disappear, so it is illuminating to think about different methodologies and to measure things typically excluded.

“The fact that some relatively new and less prestigious institutions beat Oxbridge reminds us of the different contributions made by different institutions. Above all, the index confirms our higher education sector has strength in breadth.”

Interestingly, the top three ranked universities were all former colleges of advanced technology that became universities almost 60 years ago on the back of the Robbins Report of October 1963, which led to an expansion of higher education opportunities in the UK.

The highest ranked former polytechnic was Birmingham City University in 7th place.

How the SMI measures success

London South Bank University explained to University World News that the SMI compares English universities by measuring access by the proportion of new entrants from Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) Quintiles 1 and 2 at each higher education provider.

Continuation is measured by the Office for Students’ Continuation indicator, which records the percentage of first-year students who complete their course or remain in UK higher education for 12 months (full-time students) or 24 months (part-time students) after starting their course.

Graduate outcomes are measured by the percentage of graduates with ‘Positive Outcomes’ in the Office for Students’ ‘Proceed Definition’, which includes counting highly skilled employment and any further study as positive outcomes; and medium to low skilled employment and unemployment as negative outcomes.

Asked for data used to find the winners in the SMI, a spokesman for London South Bank told University World News: “There are some constraints around some custom data that we purchased from JISC to construct the index.”

However, he explained that Bradford and Aston topped the table each year due to their very high proportion of IMD Q1 students (from areas with high levels of deprivation) – 59.1% for Bradford and 46.5% for Aston) – and IMD Q2 students (Multiple Deprivation quintile group for a valid postcode) – 20.6% for Bradford and 19.3% for Aston.

“Combined with the fact that, despite the additional support these students often need, both institutions achieve high levels of continuation, and positive graduate outcomes with decent salaries explains why they rank so highly in the index,” he said.

Fiercely committed to widening access

Professor Shirley Congdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford, said coming first nationally in the Social Mobility Index is “testament to our core ambition to make a difference for our students, the city, and society in general”.

She said: “We are fiercely committed to widening access to higher education through our approach to recruitment and admissions.

“Moreover, our graduate outcomes stand out not only because of the ‘designed-in’ approach the university takes to student employability, but because of the expertise and dedication of our careers and employability service in supporting students throughout their journey.”

Professor Aleks Subic, vice-chancellor of Aston University, said: “We have proved that it is possible to be an inclusive university that delivers impressive graduate outcomes, regardless of a student’s starting point or social capital.”

One of Aston University’s projects that has increased social mobility is its partnership with Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains. For the past year the company has been supporting students from under-represented groups to enter careers in motorsports.

Professor Juliet John, vice-president (education) at City, University of London, told University World News: “We are among the first UK universities to make professional experience and career-focused modules a mandatory part of every undergraduate course (and) the university has a robust support package for students from underrepresented backgrounds, including scholarships and bursaries.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.