Publication Education and skills 5 September, 2017

Joining the elite: how top universities can enhance social mobility

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Recent increases in the number of students going to university have been celebrated widely, and are a sign that more opportunities are becoming available to young people from less advantaged backgrounds. Still, large gaps remain between socioeconomic groups, and have shown no signs of decreasing. The gaps only grow when looking at the most selective universities

In the 29 most selective universities in England, only 6.5 per cent of the most recent intake were from the 20 per cent most disadvantaged areas. Universities are investing significant resources in reducing these gaps in participation, with more than £1 billion going into ‘widening participation’ across the entire higher education sector annually. There is no guarantee that these resources are effective, however, with some universities even seeing a fall in the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas over the past five years. This report ranks the most selective higher education institutions according to their success in increasing access, and considers whether they are being held to account effectively and incentivised to achieve value for money.

Universities do not currently report spending in detailed categories, making it difficult to assess exactly where money is going and if some are achieving more for less.

Many of the high-tariff institutions are focusing on raising attainment for students at younger ages, and are increasingly subscribing to tracking services to discover any impact on those individuals. Such efforts, however, cannot replace universities diversifying their own intakes, and institutions should be held to account separately on the two measures.

The university that has made most progress over the past five years, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), has adopted a version of so-called contextualised admissions, where an applicant’s background is considered in the admissions process.

The report considers the effects of this policy, different ways it could be used, and suggests that if replicated successfully, as many as 3,500 additional disadvantaged students could be admitted to the most selective universities every year.

Other institutions should seek to learn from this and in future the regulator should have the powers to push those failing to make progress in the direction of contextualised admissions.

Report recommendations:

  • To gain a more accurate impression of spending at different institutions, the incoming Office for Students (OfS) should make the reporting of outreach spending more consistent, and provide uniform, detailed guidelines for what should be included. Spending on contextualised admissions should be reported in a separate access category. If it proves too difficult for institutions to adapt to more direct accountability for achieving value for money, regional centralisation of widening participation should be considered.
  • All universities should subscribe to a service tracking the outcomes of individual participants in outreach activities. With rigorous evaluation, this should inform performance assessment for attainment- and aspiration-raising work. Targets for increasing attainment and general higher education participation should be separate from universities’ own intake targets.
  • The OfS should manage a public database of different institutions’ headline approaches to contextualised admissions. This information should also be published in a standard format on institutional websites, and for use by third party information providers. The OfS should have the powers to challenge institutions that fail to make progress to adopt more or other contextual measures. Ultimately, universities should run the risk of losing the right to charge maximum tuition fees if they refuse to adjust to OfS guidance.
  • The OfS should collect all evidence related to contextualised intakes and commission teams of academics to conduct analyses of anonymised datasets. Results should feed into advice on best practice.