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An English Social Mobility Index: new report proposes a ranking of universities’ impact on social mobility

  • 4 March 2021

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) is today publishing a new paper, Designing an English Social Mobility Index (HEPI Debate Paper 27), which offers a methodology for comparing the contribution of individual English higher education providers’ to social mobility.

The Index challenges the often-made assumption that only particular kinds of universities make a substantial impact on social mobility, highlighting that, in the context of their individual missions, all types of institution – from research intensives to modern technical universities – can, and do, make a substantial contribution to social mobility. 

The English SMI, which learns from a well-respected comparable indicator in the United States, takes account both of the numbers of affected students and their ‘distance travelled’ using existing data such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

In the report, Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), calls on universities in England to use the SMI to reflect on how, in the context of their own institutional missions, they can have the most impact on the social mobility of their graduates. He calls on the Government to invest in institutions that have high returns in their approach to social mobility. 

The report:

  • shows the ten universities making the most significant contribution to social mobility are the University of Bradford, Aston University, Queen Mary, University of London, Birkbeck, University of London, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine London, South Bank University, City University, Newman University, King’s College London and the University of Wolverhampton;
  • explains the current focus on judging universities by the salaries of their graduates fails to take into account individuals’ personal circumstances and how far they have travelled; and
  • recommends universities use the SMI to reflect on their own contributions to social mobility – the measure should be promoted as an antidote to the detrimental pressure of other league tables and the Government should consider the outputs of this new measure when setting policy, including consideration of investing in those institutions which demonstrate high returns in their approach to social mobility.

Professor David Phoenix, author of the report, said:

Existing university league tables perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of behaviour which compounds social advantage – 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 English SMI 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. 

The results of the Index reflect the diversity of our higher education sector. Some institutions admit moderate numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and enable these individuals to achieve significant social mobility. Others accept many more of these students and, while not moving them as far, make a very substantial cumulative contribution. This model provides a mechanism for institutions to explore how best to effect social mobility within the context of their own strengths and mission.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI and the author of the Foreword to the report, said:

It is often said that existing university rankings should cease because they convey an incomplete picture. This is exactly the wrong way around. We need instead to enrich our understanding of higher education institutions by looking at a bigger range of indicators.

The new English Social Mobility Index shows what can be achieved. It recognises institutions’ success in boosting the outcomes of a high proportion of students and also those institutions that push a smaller proportion of students a further distance.

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.

Nikki Pierce, the Academic Registrar at Bradford University, which is the top placed institution, said:

Delivering social mobility is a core part of our University strategy and something the university has been working really hard to support. To be recognised as number one in the country for this is really gratifying. It demonstrates the significant commitment we make to this and the fact we really have tried to make a difference to the lives of people in the region.

This report recognises students who come to Bradford do well in terms of changing their life chances. Most league tables rank universities based on the UCAS entry tariff, which is a reflection of A-level grades. What this new ranking system shows is the impact we’re having on students, many of whom come from socially deprived backgrounds and who might not have had opportunities to show their ability and yet, with the right support, they are able to achieve their full potential.

Ultimately this benefits students but it has a wider impact in terms of levelling up, benefiting local businesses and the regional economy.

Professor Alec Cameron, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Aston University, which is the second placed institution, said:

Aston is a university that transforms the lives of many of its students and propels them into exciting careers. We don’t talk about social mobility or treat it as an add-on – we make it happen. It is absolutely central to the way we work.

The employability of our graduates and their life and career success are of huge importance to us. It is a reason why so many students come to Aston University.

We are strongly committed to ensuring that our undergraduate students take part in work placement opportunities. It is not just about improving access to higher education for our student demographic we firmly believe that it is ‘getting on’ not just ‘getting in’ that matters. It is therefore important to us that students access degree programmes that provide them with a positive future.

Professor David Latchman, Vice-Chancellor, Birkbeck, University of London, which is the fourth placed institution, said:

I am delighted that Birkbeck has been recognised for the contribution it makes to promoting social mobility. Many of our students start with us with non-traditional qualifications before progressing onto degree courses because we consider applicants in the round, taking into account professional experience alongside formal qualifications. Many of our students are also mature and have to balance work and caring responsibilities with their studies. This can make studying tough. Some university league tables have not taken these factors into account when assessing the contribution that particular universities make to social mobility and it is pleasing that this report approaches social mobility from a different perspective.

Notes for Editors

  1. Professor David Phoenix is Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU) and Chief Executive of LSBU Group. He is a Board Member of the National Centre for Universities and Business and of Universities UK, where he also serves as the elected lead on funding policy. He has written two previous reports for HEPI: Making a Success of Employer-Sponsored Education (2016) and Filling in the biggest skills gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5 (2019).
  2. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.


  1. James Peacock says:

    This looks like a very interesting study and the idea of social mobility index for UK universities is a great one.

    However, it would be interesting to see the Social Mobility Commission’s methods for measuring socioeconomic disadvantage also taken into consideration for individual students.

    These would be based on their parental occupation, type of school attended, free school meals eligibility (and whether they were the first in their family to attend university).

  2. Sarah says:

    At first glance it is very striking that six of the ‘top ten’ are in London, and a further three in (with apologies to Wolverhampton) the Birmingham area – i.e. in the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Bradford isn’t far behind in those stakes.

    So how far is the *ability* to promote social mobility linked to geographical factors? We know less affluent and non-traditional students are more likely to study close to home, so are these universities’ performances in part down to the sheer size of the pool that they are able to recruit from, and is this adjusted for?

    None of this is to diminish the value of what institutions like Newman and Birkbeck, and others who particularly target and support ‘non-traditional’ students achieve, but to make it purely about numbers could downplay the efforts made by institutions for students from their own local communities where these are less densely populated.

  3. Stewart says:

    Where did the Open University come in your analysis?

  4. John bird says:

    Where can I find the mobility index data for all universities, not just the top 40?

  5. Rebecca Ferguson says:

    If the Social Mobility Index doesn’t include The Open University in its top 40, or even make any reference to it, can it be regarded as a useful tool?

    1. Nick Hillman says:

      The author has addressed this question on Twitter. For example, see

  6. Michael Kerrigan says:

    I work for a post-92 institution that won the University of the Year title at the 2019 UK Social Mobility Awards. And yet we weren’t in the top 40 of this new index. Having read the report, I soon saw why. The methodology contrives to ensure that certain institution types are favoured. In particular:

    • Universities that are located in deprived urban areas AND with a large proportion of their intake local (rather than a wide geographical spread)
    • Universities for which graduate salaries are high, irrespective of graduates’ socio-economic background (as the report acknowledges, the data cannot be split by socio-economic group, which only serves to ‘level up’ those types of institutions that tend to perform well in other, more established league tables).

    It seems that the new social mobility index adds to our cacophony of imperfect league tables. For me, the value of its next iteration would be enhanced if account were taken of:

    • Average earnings of the disadvantaged graduate cohort (as acknowledged in the report)

    • A value added element (e.g taking account of the tariff and qualification type that disadvantaged students entered with when assessing their outcomes). Whilst the report makes a good case for excluding entry tariffs in league tables, it’s difficult to see how distance travelled – surely an essential element of social mobility – can me measured without.

    • The VOLUME of disadvantaged students, not just the percentage (perhaps I’m biased here – in terms of numbers of disadvantaged students, my institution is up there).

    The report does helpfully promote the debate about the weakness of more established league tables. Hopefully we can build upon the solid foundations that this new index has laid.

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