On Monday this week, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published its second state of the nation report, ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain’. Chapter 6 was of particular interest to me since it focuses on the role of higher education (HE). Therefore, my comments here are based on Chapter 6 rather than a detailed reading of the full report and on how it relates to HEFCE’s work.

Overall I felt the report was positive in continuing to emphasise participation in higher education as a prime mechanism for progress on social mobility in this country. On the downside it tended to re-affirm existing (narrow) views of what social mobility is all about in the HE context.

The public debate about social mobility and higher education’s contribution to it has tended to focus on access to the ‘top’ professions; indeed, Chapter 6 is titled ‘Progress on moving to the top: universities and the professions’.  Don’t get me wrong: I would not argue that the need to increase the diversity of the judiciary, medics, politics, Whitehall, etc is unimportant. Quite the opposite. Nor would I argue that improving access to selective universities is unimportant. All higher education providers have a role to play in widening participation and contributing to social mobility.

However, to predominantly focus on ‘top’ professions does a disservice to the hard work and dedication of a large proportion of HE staff and students, who have maximised opportunities and supported success across a range of employment or further study outcomes. Our higher education system in the UK includes over 2 million students, and in England alone HEFCE funds 132 universities and over 200 further education colleges delivering higher education (with more colleges delivering HE through franchise arrangements with universities plus a range of providers of HE not funded by HEFCE). Our HE sector is therefore very large and very diverse, and what is often overlooked is the impact this sector has on educating the country’s teachers, social workers, healthcare professionals, graphic designers and so on, not to mention the next generation of academics, artists and engineers.

The role of postgraduate courses

The Commission, quite rightly, emphasises in its report the growing importance of postgraduate qualifications and the need to ensure that postgraduate programmes are accessible to all who are suitably qualified. But ensuring that taught postgraduate provision is available and accessible requires imaginative solutions: ones that work with, and sustain, the dynamism and openness of the postgraduate system and which recognise both the maturity of the system (in terms of understanding its different markets/areas of demand) and the nature of its student body (particularly in terms of the numbers of international and part-time students).

Who has done the heavy lifting on social mobility?

In order to fully understand the impact of the sector’s work to widen access and support successful outcomes, we have to get much better at identifying and measuring the added value that has come from those institutions that have done, as the report states, ‘the heavy lifting on social mobility’ to date. We need to understand how the sector’s efforts impact on individuals, the economy and society.

We need to recognise that the distance travelled for individual students before and after graduation – were they the first in their family to attend university for example, does the type of employment they secure after graduation (however modest that employment might be) mean that they are better off compared to their parents, etc) – is as important when assessing impact on individuals as the widely reported individual rate of return in terms of graduate wage premiums.

We need to recognise the impact on local communities of those institutions that focus recruitment of students locally and whose graduates typically return to those local communities, and we need to determine robust measures of the wider impacts of a highly educated workforce and citizenship on our economy and society for today and for future generations.

HEFCE is addressing these needs in three main ways:

  • We are currently working with leading economists and social scientists to develop an outcomes framework which will seek to identify and develop the measures we and the sector can use to effectively assess the impact of work to widen access and support successful outcomes.
  • We are supporting institutional projects over two years under the Postgraduate Support Scheme to develop and test approaches for ensuring that taught postgraduate study is available and accessible to all types of student.
  • We are working with Government to develop solutions that work for both postgraduate students and universities.

One of the recommendations for Government in the Commission’s report is to ensure that funding to institutions for widening participation in HE rewards and incentivises positive outcomes in social mobility. The outcomes framework can help make sure that this happens. The task we have set ourselves in developing it is a difficult one, but crucial if we are to be able to robustly demonstrate the real contribution that HE makes to individual life chances and economic and societal prosperity.