Well-known universities, including Exeter, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge, were found to have done the least to help those from the lowest-income households, in analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that for the first time ranks higher education institutions in England by their contribution to social mobility.
The research comes as the government details new measures that would compel universities in England to improve the performance of local schools and pupils, and to do more to help their graduates find rewarding careers.
The IFS study found that Oxbridge and other highly selective universities admit so few people from disadvantaged backgrounds that their impact is far outweighed by other institutions recruiting low-income students in greater numbers and helping them into higher paid careers after graduation.
Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is the sole example of a member of the Russell Group of leading universities with an outstanding record in both admitting a high proportion of students who had received free school meals and boosting their career prospects.
Prof Colin Bailey, the principal of QMUL, said he was “incredibly proud” of the achievement by staff and students.
“Recruiting students from backgrounds typically under-represented at universities, and supporting them to succeed, is at the heart of everything we stand for as a university,” Prof Bailey said.
The IFS examined the school, university and workforce history of nearly 1 million young people in England who took GCSE exams between 2002 and 2006, and tracked their careers until around the age of 30. From the data it constructed a social mobility index, using the proportion of disadvantaged young people admitted to a university or course and their later progression into a job in the top 20% of earnings.
“Despite having very high success rates, we see that the elite institutions do very poorly in terms of mobility rates, as they let in so few low-income students. Instead, low- to mid-ranking institutions, often based in London, are the best performers in terms of mobility,” the IFS said.
The University of Westminster admitted 22% of students who had previously been on free school meals, with one in four going on to well-paid jobs, giving it one of the highest social mobility ratings of 5.6%. In contrast, Bristol university admitted only 1.2% of pupils previously on free school meals – meaning that despite more than 40% progressing to highly paid careers, its rating was 0.4%.
The IFS calculated the average mobility rate across all universities in England to be 1.3%, which it said was “well below our benchmark rate of 4.4%, the rate you would get if there were equal access to university for all income groups”.
The figures also showed that high average graduate earnings did not equate to improved social mobility. “It is plausible that policies that restrict funding for low-returning courses could come at a cost in terms of social mobility,” the IFS noted, in reference to rumours that the government was looking to cut funding for courses based on graduate incomes.
The Sutton Trust, which helped produce the research, said it showed universities can be powerful vehicles for social mobility, and that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to end up as a high earner than those who don’t go to university.
Sir Peter Lampl, the trust’s founder, said universities should “give young people from low income backgrounds a break on the grades they need to get in, as their grades, in many cases, do not reflect their potential”.
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, will unveil new efforts to involve higher education in offering tutoring and summer schools for all local pupils. The government also wants a greater emphasis on universities helping their graduates find skilled employment, and more support for any students in danger of dropping out.
“We need to send a message to every disadvantaged young person thinking about higher education that they will have the support through school, college and university to get there and achieve a positive outcome,” Donelan will say.
The Department for Education has also named John Blake, a former teacher who is currently a policy director for the Ark schools multi-academy trust, as the new director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students.