‘Play Your Cards Right’ in Higher Education – why social mobility should not be a lottery

By Ajay Sharman posted 17-01-2022 10:13


Read the blog, then join the discussion in the Careers, Clubs and Cross-Curricular group and the Teaching 11-19 Science group...

If you watched Bruce Forsyth’s ‘Play Your Cards Right’ TV show, you’ll remember nine cards were randomly selected from the pack of 52 before being placed face down on the board. A contestant would then turn over successive cards, predicting whether each card would be higher or lower than the next. Why do I mention this? Because getting to university should not be a lottery like this game show, for bright young talent that happens to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

Social mobility can be defined in many ways, but generally it refers to the movement of individuals, families or particular groups through a system of social hierarchy or even social stratification, and is typically measured by career and generational changes in the socioeconomic levels of occupations. Social mobility remains a crucial indicator in the creation of an equal and vibrant society and also a healthy, opportunity for all, economy.

There are several different types of social mobility. Economic mobility refers to the ability of citizens to move up and down the economic ladder - and one of these critical ladders is the ability of young people to attend university.

A social mobility driven economy gives everyone the chance to aspire toward prosperity. This can involve access to a broad range of education, through hard work and also individual aptitude on a larger scale. Someone who just happens to be born ‘poor’ and from a more apparently disadvantaged background, is not destined to be stuck in that social class their entire life.

An equally important term is social value. In the context of an organisation, like a university, this is a long-term, ongoing commitment to ‘doing better’ from individuals, communities and arguably environmentally too. It’s a desire that should sit at the heart of an organisation to create as much positive impact and as little negative impact as possible.

Social value is about understanding the relative importance of changes that individuals or people experience, and using the insights we gain from this understanding to make better decisions. By taking this into account, organisations can ensure that decisions made focus on what is valuable to individuals and communities, and therefore start to increase the positives, reduce the negatives and ultimately increase the overall value of their work.

Last November, in partnership with the DfE and The Sutton Trust, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) released a significant study entitled ‘Which university degrees are best for intergenerational mobility?’ It used data on socio-economic background and education pathways linked to labour market outcomes and salary income.

On their website, The Sutton Trust states that their main aim is to “fight for social mobility from birth to the workplace so that every young person – no matter who their parents are, what school they go to, or where they live – has the chance to succeed in life.” As an organisation, they have continued working tirelessly to improve social mobility, including addressing access to higher education.

The IFS report and a Research Brief by the Sutton Trust highlighted the challenges for young people from less well-off backgrounds attending university by following young people completing their GCSEs between 2002-2004, who entered university from 2004 to 2006 and reached the age of 30 by 2019. These adults were then analysed based on their income and employment outcomes, as recorded from core HMRC data. In addition, the IFS also followed young people completing their GCSEs between 2010-2012 entering universities, between 2012 and 2014 with projected outcomes.

The key elements outlined in the report highlight data on ‘Access’, exploring how many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter selective and non-selective universities; and ‘Success’ - how many of those become high earners post-graduation. This generated a ‘mobility rate’, based on a multiplication of these two elements. Mobility rates are calculated using Mobility rate = Access rate x Success rate where the access rate is the share of students for each university, subject or course who are from low-income backgrounds, using free school meal (FSM) eligibility; while the success rate is the share of those FSM students who make it to the top 20% of the earnings distribution at age 30. The findings are stark:

• Less selective universities take on the majority of young people from poorer backgrounds. While in general they have lower graduate earnings on average, many of these graduates do achieve relatively well in the labour market

• More selective universities offer the best chance of becoming higher earners and access to these universities has improved in the last two decades. But those with high rates of mobility can do more to improve access by poorer young people. Improving access does not have a significant negative effect on labour market success

• Many Russell Group universities have high success rates but admit very few FSM students, leading to below-average mobility rates. Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is a remarkable exception, performing extremely well on both metrics and topping the overall mobility rankings

• Social mobility in English universities is improving

• One of the biggest influences on mobility scores appears to be geography, with London in particular dominating the top rankings

• Significantly ,while the role of higher education in social mobility is part of the story as a consequence of wider educational inequalities, the research
offers a more positive picture of the impact universities can have on young people

• Courses with the highest mobility rates include computing, pharmacology, medicine & medical sciences and engineering

The last point is particularly pertinent. STEM Learning currently manage the exciting Nuffield Research Placements (NRPs) which are engaging, real-life research and/or development projects. In NRPs, talented year 12 (or equivalent) students are placed at the heart of a UK host organisation, particularly in university settings. They are a fantastic opportunity for eligible students from poorer backgrounds to apply skills and knowledge learned at school while providing a meaningful contribution to the work of researchers at universities and industry professionals. Students eligible for these placements include those from low income families, accessing free school meals and those from local authority care.

Improving access and social mobility is not only a role for universities, it’s about building relationships and opportunities for young people to see at first-hand, university research environments. It’s about meeting graduates, postgraduates and other role models and STEM Ambassadors. These role models and STEM Ambassadors, who, in some cases, may well be from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, can be catalysts for young people to consider studying STEM subjects. You cannot be what you cannot see, so role models can play a significant element to future social mobility. Seeing is really believing.

Social mobility, however, should not be about moving into the elite for a very select few, but a more broadly based advance for the many, as noted in the Policy Exchange publication ‘Rethinking social mobility for the levelling up era’.

Back to ‘Play Your Cards Right’! By encouraging young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds to become more socially mobile and therefore help them access universities (with the help of initiatives like NRPs), means their journey becomes less of a lottery. Turning all the playing cards face up gives students the best chance to reach the highest level they can achieve, through desire and achievement. It is therefore incumbent on ALL universities to have a strong social value stance, to allow unabated access for young people, with talent, per se, particularly those from more challenging and disadvantaged backgrounds.
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18-01-2022 11:37

Thank you Aj an excellent blog and we should all be mindful of the important points you raise as we further develop our programmes and support for all young people

17-01-2022 12:48

Excellent blog Ajay - thank you 

If this country is to thrive we must do better at encouraging and enabling young people from all social backgrounds to engage and succeed in further and higher education.  There are so many pieces to this jigsaw - from improving aspiration to ensuring better teaching and learning - I am proud of STEM Learnings impact in this area.   More to be done................