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The UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility, Lee Elliot Major, considers the policy consequences of the new higher education admissions data

  • 16 December 2020
  • By Lee Elliot Major

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and former CEO of the Sutton Trust.

Like all statistics, university admissions data are wonderfully manipulative things. Today’s UCAS figures might lead you to conclude that universities’ social mobility efforts require just a little nudge to vanquish inequality over the next decade. The admissions service estimates that the country’s 38 most selective universities would each only need to admit an extra 70 disadvantaged students in England annually to close the equality gap in their admissions by 2030. Surely even the most prestigious institutions could enrol an extra couple of classes of state school pupils every year?

The problem is that this tantalising target unravels when you do the sums. Over a ten-year period the cumulative total of these new entrants across 38 universities is 26,660. That’s a lot of students requiring high A-level grades. In the contested battleground of elite university admissions, it’s a seismic swing in the make-up of degree places.

The historical reality is that diversifying intakes has been hard-won, steady but slow progress. That’s why UCAS, using its own measure of disadvantage (the Multiple Equality Measurement), also reports a more sobering statistic: on current trajectories, the admissions gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students will take 332 years to close. 

These calculations echo those we published in our HEPI report a year ago. We found that it would take nearly a century for highly-selective universities in England to raise the participation rate of young people from the least advantaged areas to the existing participation rate for young people from the most advantaged areas. This would be needed to meet the Office for Students’ targets to end equality gaps in higher education. 

These estimates are conservative as they presuppose that societal inequalities outside the university and school system will remain unchanged over the coming years. In fact universities will more likely have to run faster just to stand still. 

Research I’m involved in has revealed stark and widening inequalities in learning losses and achievement among school pupils in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I’ve proposed a one-off special flagging system alongside exam grades in 2021 to identify a minority of pupils who have been most seriously affected by COVID-19. This would allow universities to take their extenuating circumstances into account when judging the grades.

The upheaval brought by the Coronavirus offers an opportunity to think outside the box. We need to up our game on widening access to universities, particularly the most selective institutions. The recommendations made in our 2019 HEPI report are even more pressing in the post-pandemic world, where there will also be growth in student numbers and more competition for degree places.

Some reforms that have long been mooted now look more likely. I’ve welcomed the Government’s plans for a Post-Qualification Application (PQA) system with students applying to university after receiving their A-Level grades. This would sweep away the barriers that have for too long stymied prospects of underpredicted poorer students. 

It’s also time to introduce comprehensive and transparent use of lower grade offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities in England should produce two published offers for degree courses: a standard entry requirement and a minimum entry requirement, of up to three A-Level grades lower across three A-Levels (so BBB compared with AAA, for example).

The Office for Students meanwhile should challenge highly-selective universities to expand student numbers in innovative ways to diversify intakes, including degree apprenticeships, foundation years and courses for part-time and mature learners. Failing to find ways of expanding university places will prompt acrimonious battles over who secures degree places – ‘a clash of the classes’.

But the most powerful reform arguably would be to create social mobility rankings for universities, measuring outcomes for disadvantaged students. Such rankings already exist for employers and universities in the United States, and they are long overdue.

Current university league tables have chilling effects on universities’ efforts to promote social mobility. Universities gain higher rankings for the higher A-Level entry grades they demand – a direct disincentive to award lower grade contextual offers or consider applicants without traditional academic qualifications. The tables do not generally measure the gains made by students. 

We need to convince newspaper compilers to reform current league tables. These are the statistics manipulating university behaviour. Dropping down the newspaper rankings is the last thing any vice-chancellor wants. If left unchanged, the tables will continue to damage the prospects of disadvantaged students for years to come.


  1. Steve McArdle says:

    I would also add that recruiting students with high social capital, networks of contacts and the resources to undertake unpaid internships is also rewarded in the use of employment and earnings data in current league tables.

  2. I recommend Cathy O’Neill’s book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ for anyone interested in reading more about University League Tables and the unintended consequences of other forms of data collection too.

  3. Albert Wright says:

    A much stronger weighting should be given to social mobility supporters when producing key League Tables to accelerate the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the better Universities.
    Without such a change it will take too long before society and the individuals are able to benefit all of us from the higher productivity and social richness that will result

  4. As always, Lee Elliot-Major has provided a brilliantly incisive and sensible account here and made some really valuable suggestions. It is probably worth exploring some of those recommendations further though (I’m sure sure he has considered all my points already, but didn’t have space for a full examination):

    1) Flag students whose attainment has been badly disrupted by Covid.

    For this to work fairly, there would have to be graded flags to avoid a cliff-edge. But then who would determine and authenticate the level of disruption that has taken place?

    2) Unis should publish standard and minimum entry grades

    I am in absolute agreement on this, although I’m not so sure about limiting the deviation allowed between the two sets of to 3 grade-points across 3 subjects.

    The research on this is clear (see Boliver, Gorard et al: In order to be effective at redressing disadvantages in admissions, contextual offer-making needs to be bold.

    I guess Lee’s intention by controlling the deviation is to avoid a spread that ends up so wide as to be rendered meaningless. I suggest that might be better addressed instead by OfS requiring greater transparency on the part of universities about when and why lower grades might be sufficient for entry.

    3) League tables should include social mobility as a metric

    I agree wholeheartedly. However, the most popular league tables have toyed with this idea (in various forms) over many years and they have rebuffed it many times.

    That’s because university league tables work on the basis of confirming biases. Their grip on authoritativeness is already so tenuous that if they ever ranked Oxford University below Oxford Brookes, rather than shaking the HE hierarchy, it would be the ranking itself that would be regarded with scepticism.

    If a league table has to yield certain results to be believed, it shouldn’t be believed.

    Their model relies on telling people mostly what they expect to hear and building a methodology to produce those results. Sadly, that leaves little room for social mobility metrics.

    That said, Lee is right: league tables could and should rate universities according to non-traditional, but critical performance metrics such as access. However, their unwillingness isn’t the only problem.

    League tables commit all sorts of heinous statistical crimes through the arbitrary aggregation and weighting of chalk’n’cheese measures into a single pop chart. It’s better to create rankings for specific aspects of universities’ performance. On that basis, fair access (and/or social mobility) should be the subject of its own ranking. And, as it happens, HEPI produced one not so long ago:

  5. Steven McArdle says:

    As a first step recognising the progress universities are making in social mobility relative to their previous position would bypass the problem of new versus old league table positions.

  6. Ros Lucas says:

    We have tried many ways and spent time and funding on inspecting and curriculum changes, often throwing out the baby with bath water, as far as the vocational v academia dichotomy is concerned.
    Now is the time for some real ‘blue sky thinking -long discussed by the Edge Foundation of linking vocational and academic across the curriculum.

    We also need to integrate the two tier private, feepaying v the state systems of education
    In the 21st Century, thus closing one of the main barriers, produced by access to lots of money.

    The above suggestions are seen as impossible, unnecessary and unwanted by many of those in high places and institutions, from often personal and historical viewpoints, unlinked with providing progressive education opportunities for all of society’s children.

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