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Lee Elliot Major: A way forward for the Social Mobility Index

  • 16 March 2021
  • By Lee Elliot Major

This blog was kindly contributed by Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and co-author of HEPI Policy Note Social Mobility and Elite Universities. You can find Lee on Twitter @Lem_Exeter.

We are defined by how we are measured. Statistics that measure the performance of complex organisations distort their behaviour in unintended ways. Police forces record fewer incidents as crimes. Surgeons avoid operating on their most frail patients. Teachers teach to the test. And universities are penalised for  attracting students from poorer backgrounds.

Tariff is king in higher education league tables. The higher the A-level grades of entrants, the higher an institution is ranked. This has little to do with any educational value provided by an institution. And it’s a direct disincentive to give lower grade offers to students who have done well at school in incredibly challenging circumstances. A-level grades are as much a signal of the support students have received as their academic potential. Tables are effectively proxies of privilege.

That’s why, for all its flaws, the first social mobility index for English universities is very welcome.

I have dabbled in the dark arts of league-tabling. Two decades ago, I created the first Guardian University guide. At the Times Higher Education Supplement I witnessed the birth of international university rankings. Numbers in official print assume an authority even though this may be illusory when you dig beneath the surface. In our busy complex worlds simple statistics retain an irresistible power.

In the intervening years social mobility has turned from an academic specialism into a topic of daily public policy debate. We documented these developments in our 2019 report Social mobility and elite universities (HEPI Policy Note 20). In the US, a Social Mobility Index has countered traditional academic hierarchies. In the UK major employers vie for positions in a Social Mobility Employer Index. By comparison, rankings for UK higher education institutions remain stuck in the dark age.

Social mobility can be defined in many ways. In its most basic form it measures where people come from and where they get to.

The UK suffers low social mobility: life outcomes depend more on family background and less on hard work and talent than they should do. 

Schools, and universities in particular, can only do so much. Life prospects are shaped by forces outside the education system as much as inside it. University is one leap in life’s journey – from university fresher’s day to the first graduate pay cheque. But the pressure to provide equitable access for all will only increase. We could do so much to enable more young people from less privileged backgrounds to experience the benefits of higher education. 

The English Social Mobility Index measures social mobility efforts of institutions using just three statistics: the enrolment and continuation of disadvantaged students, and average graduate salaries.

As Peter Scott points out there are many questions about these three measures. Measuring disadvantage by postcode, not individually, is fraught with difficulty. In London an area of high multiple deprivation will have residents living in million pound homes. Measuring average salaries meanwhile tells you little about the earnings of disadvantaged graduates in particular. And earnings are but one narrow occupational outcome: would we really want to penalise institutions for producing graduates who become teachers or nurses?

All league tables are filled with questionable approximations, suspect data and arbitrary decisions. These rankings are a first attempt – a work in progress as their author David Phoenix concedes. I hope they prompt heated debate and that they can be refined and improved. 

Our one hope is that newspaper league table compilers sit up and take note. Incorporating social mobility rankings into the main newspaper tables would be a game-changer.

Efforts to widen participation, particularly among the most selective universities, have stalled over the last decade. And the pandemic is likely only to exacerbate educational inequalities.

Our future elites come from too narrow a talent pool. Just a few statistics could change all that.

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