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Is the Government admitting to failure of its Social Mobility Measures?: The progress in ten years.

Aspirations of Oxford or just blowing bubbles?
Whilst numbers have risen, the chances of poorer students accessing university have remained relatively low. That this has not changed much since 1928 must remain a serious worry in a society that should be aspiring to be more equal. Over that time, the funding of universities had staggered from fees to grants and back to fees. But, whatever the regime, providing sufficient financial support has been the only way to open the door for poorer students.

Judging from the speech made this week at the Resolution Foundation by Damian Hinds (the current Education Minister), this would seem to be the case. He concentrated on two major issues that turn out to have been problematical for the Government’s social mobility policies over recent years. He started by consideration of the so-called 'seven key truths' that affect social mobility and that were published in an all-party Parliamentary report on Social Mobility in 2012 [1].

In summary, these are: 1. Early learning at home; 2. School education: 3. Quality of teaching and teachers; 4. Out of school experience; 5. Access to university; 6. Second chances for people later in life and 7. Personal resilience.

They are all undoubtedly key factors. But they skirt around the obvious ‘truth’ that overshadows all of this; that is the stark reality of poverty for many families in a grossly unequal society. Some show levels of personal resilience that others better off cannot imagine. In relation to ‘Key Truth 6’ he did not address the rapid decline in mature students at universities that has been directly brought about by his own government’s policies. It seems that actions are falling well short of aspirations. 

A video and transcript of the speech are available [2]

The Bercow report 10 years on.

Damian Hind’s speech concentrated a lot on the early years of education and the learning gap that emerges for disadvantaged children in the first few years before school. The media quoted his assertion that: “more than a quarter - 28% - of children finish their reception year still without the early communication and reading skills they need to thrive. It’s not acceptable and tackling it must be our shared priority”. This is a historical problem driven by poverty in the home and his call for improvement comes far too late for some. A report in March addressed the so-called ten-year-old ‘Bercow report’ [3]. It considered services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. The latest report, called ‘Bercow Ten years on’ [4], pulled few punches in criticising the government on its record. Under “An accessible and equitable service for all families” it states: “Our evidence shows a system of fractured services and high levels of inequity for children and young people. The postcode lottery described by families 10 years ago remains: the support you get depends on where you live or where you go to school”.

An admission of failure.

Damian Hinds went onto say that: “18-year-old applicants from the most advantaged areas in the country are still nearly five and a half times more likely to enter the most selective universities than their disadvantaged peers. And that, ladies and gentleman, is not acceptable.” He is correct, but why is that? It seems to be an admission of government failure. He and his government have been in power since 2010 and still have not got a proper grip on the handle of the social mobility problem that has dogged our society from the last century and well into this one. The poor reading ability of children at home is surely driven by poverty and access to resources. As more families are affected by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, poor housing and more recently the debacle of ‘universal credit’, it seems that tackling social mobility is becoming harder.

University access and Social Mobility 10 years on. 

A further statement was: “Now, on the social mobility front, we can point to record numbers of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going on to attend university”. 

This immediately prompts a careful look at the recent situation in our universities and how they have changed in the last 10 years or so. Historical HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) data provides evidence that indeed the number of students from geographical areas of low participation in higher education has increased. Taking a snapshot of the situation using the most recent HESA data release from 2018, and historical data from 2007-2008, gives an interesting perspective on the changes [5]. This is illustrated
in Figure 1 where universities are categorised into Russell Group (red), Pre-90 (green) and post 92 

From HESA [5] and Times Higher Education [6] 

(blue) institutions. A convenient way to separate these institutions along the x-axis is by ranking them using the RAE 2008 and REF-2014 Research Power score calculated by Times Higher Education [6]. The Russell Group universities (red) generally rank in red ahead of the pre-92 institutions and then the post-92 institutions. A similar ranking can be done on tariff point entry grades, student-staff ratios or resources in general. It would appear that the elite universities, in general, have better resources and, in theory at least, provide access to a research-led curriculum. The y-axis is the percentage of intake from the lower participation Quintile 1 POLAR (Participation Of Local AReas) neighbourhoods [7]. Essentially this is a geographical area based largely on council wards. They are categorised as POLAR Quintile 5 (high participation in Higher Education above 20%) and POLAR Quintile 1 (participation below 20%). This is done by using postcodes and provides a good estimate of the numbers in each category for around 90-95% of students. However, this is not done for Scotland and Scottish universities are omitted here. An earlier TEFS blog in April this year: ‘The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans?’ examined the problems of using POLAR methodology and why Scotland has to use a different method [8]. The size of each symbol (or ball) marking the data points reflects the total numbers in the z-axis data. This data is the actual numbers of students in the intakes of each university from the POLAR 1 Quintile neighbourhoods. A comparison can then be made between the 2008 data and the most recent release in 2018 on the basis of RAE/REF ranking, % of students from disadvantaged areas and the number of students involved. One caveat is that the 2008 data is based upon POLAR Version 2 and 2018 data on POLAR Version 3 and they are not strictly comparable. However, they give a fair view of the comparative picture.

The most striking observation is that the relative participation in the three university types has not changed very much in 10 years. There has also been a little movement along the RAE/REF scale. The size of the symbols indicates that the numbers overall have increased and that the Post-92 universities are taking most of the burden. But of course, the total number of students has risen across the board. The introduction of fees followed by further increases has apparently not affected total numbers. However, the abolition of maintenance grants and relatively low maintenance loans until this year must have deterred the poorest from seeking places. Add to this the realisation that those with sparse finances need to have part-time jobs, that distracts them from their studies, and the consequences are obvious. Those from poorer areas are more likely to drop out or achieve lower degree outcomes. This adds up to policies that are failing the students coming under the most pressure. 

The historical trends in university access before 2008.

It comes as a surprise that the situation appears to have been broadly the same going back to 1928. The main change has been the astounding increase in the total number of students attending university from across the UK. However, despite this, the proportion of students from disadvantaged classes or disadvantaged areas has largely remained similar. From 1928 to 1947, the proportion of students that had manual labourer fathers remained around 23% but had risen slightly to 25% by 1961. By then, the university student numbers had more than doubled to over 20,000 students (Robbins Report 1963 [9]). However, it has also been reported that Oxford and Cambridge had participation rates as low as 9% for such students in the 1950s [10]. Currently, the POLAR Quintile 1 rates for Cambridge and Oxford are 3% and 3.5% respectively. Despite the expansion of the university population to almost 300,000 students by 1977 (when I graduated) the picture was again similar at 23% for students from skilled manual, partly skilled and unskilled backgrounds [10]. Whilst individuals from poorer backgrounds saw some chance of progress, it was against a backdrop of a massive increase in the numbers of students accompanying them from more advantaged backgrounds. By the turn of the millennium, this proportion had progressed to 27% of the undergraduate student numbers that had then reached 1.15 million. The numbers have peaked at almost 2 million since then, but over this time the proportion of students from poorer areas and backgrounds have still remained relatively low. The target should be to reach 20% of students from the lower participation Quintile 1 POLAR neighbourhoods. Although this might be a long way off, it seems that some post-92 institutions are already doing this above the target (Figure 1). 


If there has been any success to report, then it has been that, despite government policies, some poorer students have been able to gain access to university at all. This might be due more to the efforts of the numerous charitable organisations operating outside of government; the Sutton Trust being the highest profile. Others, amongst many, provide practical help and includes; Stand Alone that assists estranged students; Brightside that provides mentoring and GrantFairy that matches students to bursaries. The vital role of these and many others will be reviewed in an upcoming TEFS Blog. The efforts of hard working teachers and schools must not be left out as they are essential in helping those with fewer resources to succeed. 

The government instead has decided to fund yet another expensive review of the causes of low social mobility. Damian Hinds is reported [11] to have announced this week that “a new big-data project will also be commissioned, based on work in the US, to look at young people from across the UK and where they end up in the next five or six years” also that the Office for Students has been asked to identify the best approaches for getting children from different backgrounds into university, including the most selective. This has the feel of kicking the problem into a thicket that has grown from the long grass over the last 10 years. But he also noted that universities were expected to spend £860m to “improve access and success for disadvantaged students”. It is not explained what the time period is, where it comes from in university budgets or how it is to be administered and audited. However, this sum could provide grants to fully support maintaining over 34,000 students for three years.

The conclusion is that, whilst numbers have risen, the chances of poorer students accessing university has remained relatively low. That this has not changed much since 1928 should be a serious worry in a society that should be aspiring to be more equal. Over that time, the funding of universities had staggered from fees to grants and back to fees. But, whatever the regime, providing sufficient financial support has been the only way to open the door for poorer students.

Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


[1] 7 Key Truths about Social Mobility. The interim report of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility 1 May 2012.

[2] Resolution Foundation Video Social mobility speech by Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds MP Tuesday 31 July 2018.


[3] The Bercow Report: A review of services for children and young people (0-19) with speech, language and communication needs.

[4] Bercow: Ten Years On is a report on the state of provision for children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in England. The report has been published by I CAN , the children’s communication charity, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT).

An associated petition is at:

[5] Higher Education Statistics Agency HESA.

[6] Times Higher Education. REF 2014 results: Table of excellence. Includes comparison to 2008 RAE results.

[7] HESA POLAR (Participation of local areas)

[8] TEFS blog Friday, 20 April 2018 The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans?

[9] Robbins report Committee on Higher Education Report (1963) ‘Robbins report’

[10] Houses of Parliament research briefings Higher education and social class SN/SG/620 2010

[11] The Guardian. 31Jul 2018. Education secretary: elite universities must improve access


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