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David Phoenix responds to Peter Scott on the Social Mobility Index

  • 9 March 2021
  • By David Phoenix

In this blog David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor at London South Bank University and author of the recent HEPI report which outlines what a Social Mobility Index for the UK, responds to a blog by Peter Scott, Commissioner for Fair Access, Scotland, and Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. You can find David on Twitter @David_PhoenixVC.

I would like to thank Peter Scott for taking time to provide comment on my new paper; and I’m delighted he agrees that the next step is to focus on improving and strengthening it. Debate was one of the things London South Bank University colleagues and I hoped to accomplish in creating this English Social Mobility Index for Higher Education.  I am pleased to see that it has had some success in this regard.

One of the legitimate criticisms of higher education league tables is that they focus principally on input measures, such as the prior educational achievement of entrants or institutional spend (however well applied). The second, again legitimate, criticism is that they treat the higher education sector as homogenous. They take no account of the diversity of the sector and of institutions’ distinct missions. Indeed league tables have the potential to drive everything to a vanilla middle ground stifling innovation and undermining the distinct missions and offers that a diverse sector provides. However, whilst each institution will want to determine and pursue its own distinct mission, it remains valuable to understand how that approach and its delivery sit in relation to one’s peers, and understand why performance may differ. In this context, the challenge of league tables lies not solely in design, but in how they are used.

As part of the key outcome measures for LSBU’s s new corporate strategy, we wanted a way of assessing our higher education contribution to social mobility. Having failed to find a useful UK measure, we looked overseas to the US Social Mobility Index for Higher Education. Taking this as a model and using the English data available, we established a measure that worked for our own strategy. In so doing though, we also quickly saw the potential to develop something that would provide a measure against which all UK universities could measure their contributions, combining the social distance travelled by their graduates and the number of graduates transported. The result is, we hope, an English Higher Education Social Mobility Index (English SMI) which can help universities and others to measure their success in achieving positive social mobility for their graduates, according to their mission.

This index, like all measures of its kind, is determined by the data available and the choices made on matters such as definitions and weightings. As such, what we have created is by no means either perfect or indeed the only possible version of such a measure. And these points are, we believe, well-rehearsed and developed as part of the report.

Peter Scott has highlighted these points in his article about our paper; and I would concur with the general scepticism he expresses about league tables. He has also highlighted perhaps a more serious or controversial question. Is it right to compare different ‘kinds’ of contribution to social mobility? Is, for example, helping to provide a relatively small number of disadvantaged students to achieve great things inherently better or worse than taking a large cohort from disadvantage into making a perhaps more modest contribution to the community, their families and the UK economy?

Given that every higher education institution would, we hope, seek to make a contribution to the social mobility of its students; then a measure that weighs that contribution, however it is made has, I think, some merit. Principally, that merit is in helping us all to measure what we are doing, whilst allowing us to do it in the manner to which our institution – taking account of its place in history and geography – is best equipped, rather than seeking all institutions to do all things. When so many measures treat all higher institutions as apples, whether they are apples, oranges or bananas, this one seeks to enable the diverse parts of the higher education sector to measure themselves against what they seek to achieve, in the context of what they set out to do. I think that is the strength of our approach and not a weakness.

Finally, I would add that we are not precious about this model; and if any institution would like to take and adjust the weightings or other aspects to provide what they believe provides a more useful insight into their own contribution to social mobility, we will be happy to provide the underlying model. The main aim is to simulate debate and to try to get institutions to reflect on the outcomes their approaches to social mobility are achieving compared to their peers.

1 comment

  1. John bird says:

    2 cliches both probably true : education cannot compensate for society; education can, at best, provide equal opportunity to be unequal.

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