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WEEKEND READING. A rejoinder to Michelle Donelan: true social mobility and higher education

  • 18 July 2020
  • By Graeme Atherton & Peter John

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Graeme Atherton, Director, National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and Professor Peter John, CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of West London. @NEONHE

Delegates at the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) event on the 1st July were not only surprised but shocked at the speech delivered by the latest Minister for Higher Education, Michelle Donelan. Its content soon reverberated around the sector and was met with amazement and in some quarters alarm. It was closely followed by Gavin Williamson’s speech at the Social Market Foundation a week later which signalled a further rejection of the orthodoxy of the last twenty years in ending the apparent ‘50% target’ for entry into universities. However forthright the speech at NEON appeared, it should not be seen as unexpected. Doubts about widening access to higher education as a route to improving the lives of those from low income and other disadvantaged backgrounds have never gone away. These doubts have spanned the socio-economic divide from communities where higher education participation is the lowest to the thoughts of the most privileged. To see them finally come into full-view and begin to shape higher education policy again is no surprise – especially in the context of the Conservative Government’s attempt to ‘level up’ and entrench its position in the crumbled red walls of the left-behind northern towns.

1. ‘Social mobility isn’t about getting more young people into university.’

The Minister’s first point was to dispute the merits of increasing higher education participation overall. In one sense, it is correct to say that upward social mobility (if that is what the Minister meant when she referred to social mobility), is not only about increasing higher education participation but is also governed by a number of other factors including labour market conditions. So, if there are not enough highly skilled and high-status jobs to go around, upward social mobility will flounder because there simply won’t be enough ‘room at the top.’ One way of avoiding the latter is to accept some downward social mobility which is likely to be politically unacceptable. However, while labour market forecasting should always be seen as tentative, a range of reports points to an expansion in the professional, managerial and public sector jobs in the coming decades. Work by McKinsey, for instance, suggests that demand for occupations in what they describe as the top quintile, will increase by 19 percent from 2017 to 2030. The chances of entry to these roles would be significantly heightened by the possession of a degree.

Given the uncertainty in predicting future employment, research by Nesta and Pearson show that 70 per cent of people are currently in jobs where it is not possible to predict future demand, a focus on skills may be more appropriate. The study by Nesta and Pearson also highlights the importance of higher-order cognitive skills such as originality, fluency of ideas and active learning skills (sometimes termed soft skills) all of which are associated with higher education participation. Such evidence of demand for graduate skills is also found in a range of other studies from the CBI, and the Industrial Strategy Council among others. Looking at what is known about future labour market changes, it does appear then that increasing higher education participation may be necessary to facilitate social mobility.

It is those from higher socio-economic groups though who will benefit from any new higher-skilled opportunities created unless higher education participation expands. Over the last 12 years the participation rate of those from such groups has increased to 47.4% among 18 year olds. In terms of future demand, research by Ipsos/Mori for the Sutton Trust in 2018 showed that 73 per cent of 11-16 year olds from the most affluent backgrounds expected to go onto higher education. Young people and parents from higher socio-economic groups understand the advantages it affords them. Evidence shows that those from the higher participation areas are likely to earn more than the median salary after graduation. Further studies show that 64 per cent of those from more affluent groups who achieve a first class honours degree from a Russell Group university go on to take up roles in the highest earning professions only 45 per cent of those from less privileged starting points but with identical or better qualifications do so. As John Goldthorpe, the sociologist who did more than any other to invent the term ‘social mobility’ comments, ‘families from these higher socio-economic groups will protect their position and have a ’loss aversion.’ Those further up the social scale will not surrender the advantages that higher education brings. The only way to allow those further down the scale to enjoy these advantages is to increase higher education participation.

2. ‘We have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals.’

The Minister’s second proposition was a familiar trope centred on perceived low value courses. A significant amount has already been written about the variations between the economic returns within and across subject disciplines but identifying low quality such courses remains difficult. While some students may earn less than non-graduates over their lifetime this is hard to ascertain as lifetime earnings predictions depend so heavily on unknown future labour market conditions.

For example, data from the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) analysed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) earlier this year, showed that in terms of expected lifetime earnings, around 20 per cent of those with degrees may earn less than the average non-graduate with such graduates concentrated in certain subject areas. Even if such predictions come to pass though, they still do not mean that their life chances have not been improved or their career goals advanced.

Graduates are still likely to earn more than non-graduates even if they have non graduate jobs. The majority of students 15 months after graduation regardless of subject feel they are utilising what they learnt in their studies in their current role. Looking more specifically at students from a particular subject area where labour market returns have been the lowest, the creative arts, for instance, research indicates that three quarters of working graduates (77 per cent) were satisfied with their work situation. Such satisfaction levels are slightly higher than the average rating for job satisfaction in the UK which is 7.5 out of 10. The returns to a degree are more than just the salary obtained. Job satisfaction matters and courses which may offer less earnings offer other benefits.

In terms of particular courses that may be less likely to benefit graduates working in non-graduate jobs, those who are what the Office for National Statistics (ONS) describe as ‘over-educated’, are found across subject areas including STEM. This is despite the persistent message from policy makers that it is in these areas where more graduates are needed. For instance, more biological sciences graduates who completed between 2007 and 2015 are in non-graduate jobs than media and information studies graduates. Graduate outcomes can be improved. It may be better to improve these outcomes not by reducing the number of graduates but by addressing deficiencies in skill utilisation and skills density in the UK as evidence shows deficiencies are leading to the UK’s low levels of productivity.

3. ‘The 2004 access regime has let down too many young people’ who ‘have been taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university’.

The third strand of the Minister’s argument builds on the first two: that the expansion of higher education and the lack of apparent economic return, has led to students’ ambitions being curtailed and to many of them being ‘taken advantage of’. The evidence, however, points in a different direction. Looking at students overall, it appears that those who have attended higher education over the last twenty years are far more likely to have benefitted from it than not. From 2007 to 2017, graduate unemployment has always been lower than non-graduate unemployment. This is despite the higher education participation rate for those aged 18 to 30 increasing by eight per cent over this period. Graduate earnings have also on average remained above non-graduates over this period. Again, data released by the Department of Education itself less than two years ago shows over the period 2008 to 2018, the median salary for graduates had increased by more than £3,000 per year and was £10,000 more than non-graduates.

The focus on those without a family history of university attendance is difficult to unpick given the lack of serious studies in the area. Given that, we will focus on a group with low levels of HE participation, but where sata is more readily available i.e. those who have been in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM). For those who failed to enter higher education, their future options are far bleaker than their better-off peers. The Government’s own data shows that young people who have been in receipt of free school meals (FSM) are 23 per cent less likely to be in sustained employment aged 27 when compared to their peers not in receipt of FSM, and three times more likely to be on out-of-work benefits. However, further government data shows that those who were in receipt of FSM and entered higher education five years after graduation (roughly at the same time for most young undergraduates then as the 27 year olds examined above), 83 per cent were in further study, sustained employment or both. This group also earn, on average, close to the average median salary by their late 20s, and more than the median wage for those in lower skill occupations. Given the backgrounds of such students, the returns for those in lower skill occupations is a more meaningful comparator. Furthermore, bearing in mind that for most graduates their earnings peak later in life, it would be reasonable for the young person and their family to assume that their income will increase over time.

Given the choices facing such young people, the very idea that encouraging entry into higher education is ‘taking advantage of them’ does not hold water. Rather, it could be argued that actively discouraging such groups from progressing to higher education might be ‘taking advantage’ of their relative lack of knowledge of the higher education system while allowing those with the right social, cultural and educational capital to thrive.

Alternatives such as an apprenticeship and other further education vocational routes do exist, but once again the evidence is clear: the vast majority of graduates earn more than apprentices. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the mid-2010s showed that the median hourly pay for graduates is 50 per cent higher than that for non-graduates. Earnings also peak at a higher level and unemployment is lower. Some apprentices do earn more than those who have degrees but they remain the minority. It is becoming abundantly clear that the future after the pandemic is going to be uncertain, perhaps for decades. Higher education, we believe, represents for those with the requisite qualifications and aptitude to progress, the best bulwark against such uncertainty. The expansion of higher education since 2004 has, far from letting people down, given protection to thousands who were previously denied it.

4. True social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path.

The final theme of the Minister’s speech was the focus on ‘true social mobility’ linking origins to destinations. However, if increasing higher education participation will enable more people to ‘choose the path’ they wish and get to ‘their desired destination’, should the opportunity be denied to them? In the State of the Nation 2019 Social Mobility Report, the authors highlighted the fact that being born disadvantaged means you are likely to stay disadvantaged given the number of barriers that need to be overcome to secure movement. The obstacles include the quality of the schooling that such groups receive alongside regional inequality, low value jobs, and limited aspiration. Entry into higher education comes at the apex for those who manage to work their way through these impediments, so should they be denied the opportunity?

The Minster should be applauded for raising the issue of social mobility in such a candid way and highlighting the difficulties that students from lower income and other under-represented groups have undergone over recent years. It was also tacitly assumed that a higher education is not just an instrumental way of achieving success and social mobility but is about so much more. However, too often the pathway for some is a bumpy and winding one with many diversions and blockages while others are able to follow a smoother more direct path. All of this means greater not lesser attention needs to be paid to widening access, how to do it, who is benefitting from it, and making the real rather than cosmetic institutional changes such a commitment demands. Without such attention then the true social mobility we all value will remain elusive to large parts of the population.


  1. Les Ebdon says:

    Thank you for using the Government’s own data and a calm well reasoned approach to expose the inconsistency of the Minister’s arguments. When I was Director of Fair Access the strong support I received from successive Conservative HE Ministers for efforts to widen participation and promote fair access is a matter of record and strong contrast.

  2. chris dobbs says:

    I believe she also used the term “levelling down”. I would have liked that term to have been unpacked and re examined.
    I would be keen to know what her or Mr. Williamson’s response will be (if any).

  3. Dan West says:

    Excellent fact based appraisal. I would urge colleagues not to be downhearted by this – the work you do to improve life chances is exceptional. The key challenge for HEIs is to ensure equitable outcomes for students from lower socio-economic and other disadvantaged backgrounds. This needs an honest appraisal of institutional polices, procedures and practices. Non deficit approaches.

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