The current government’s approach to social mobility is centred on access to Russell Group universities. There is a fixed assumption in policy making that the higher the average entry tariff of the university you attend, the greater your potential social mobility. One reading of the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report on graduate earnings would seem to support this; if you want to earn a large salary, study a ‘Russell Group’ type course at a ‘Russell Group’ type institution.
But can the Russell Group deliver social mobility on the scale required? Can they be the sole solution to the Prime Minister’s challenge of doubling the number of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020? Even if we ignore the recent government leak that casts doubt on whether established universities wish to expand their numbers, the rate of increase required looks unrealistic.
The focus on the Russell Group is misguided. Successful strategies for social mobility are dependent on students’ experiences while they are at and after they leave university, and not just on their socio-economic characteristics and qualifications on entry. As the IFS report spells out, a student from a less privileged background is less likely to move up the social ladder than their more affluent peers, even when attending a Russell Group university.
This is a considerable challenge for all universities. At Nottingham Trent, our attention has been on the value of integrating workplace opportunities with undergraduate programmes. Recent research at Trent has focused on the academic value of internships and found that all students across all subject areas are likely to improve their attainment as a result. Research at the University of Bath found that accounting & finance students who undertook a placement year significantly increased their chances of attaining a 1st or 2:1 compared with their counterparts who took the same course without the placement year.
In their study of differences in employment outcomes, HEFCE found that sandwich placements were associated with a significantly higher probability of progressing to further study or employment and, of those in employment, a significantly higher probability of gaining graduate level professional occupations. It would seem, therefore, that sandwich placements enhance students’ success across the whole educational journey.
At NTU we undertook some analysis focusing on the employment prospects of our students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds (using ACORN classifications. The results confirmed the IFS findings; our widening participation (WP) students in employment were significantly less likely to have progressed to professional occupations than their more advantaged counterparts.
However, this was not the case for NTU’s WP students who had studied a four-year sandwich course with a one-year work placement. These students were equally as likely to progress to professional employment as non-WP students on sandwich courses. While, as would be expected, there was some variability between subject areas, our initial findings suggested that disadvantaged students’ participation in sandwich courses could help negate the socio-economic effect on their progression to graduate level employment. Across NTU’s three year full-time courses, 57% of WP students in full-time employment six months after graduation were employed in professional occupations. This increased to 89% of those WP graduates who had undertaken a sandwich programme, comparable to the proportion of non-WP students progressing to professional occupations taking this sandwich route.
Our findings are reflected across the whole sector, using DLHE data from 2011/12 to 2013/14. Graduates are significantly more likely to progress to professional occupations across all mission groups and for WP and non-WP students alike if they take a sandwich work placement (GuildHE bucks the trend, but the sample is too small for a complete comparison). Of course, there were variations in the results between different institutions, subject areas, prior attainment and students’ equality & diversity characteristics. However, when statistically controlling for these known influencing factors, participation in sandwich placements still had a significant effect on professional employment prospects.
Figure 1: Percentage of graduates (in full-time employment) employed in professional occupations, by mission group, mode of study and WP indicator
More research needs to be done to understand why this is the case. Anecdotal evidence suggests sandwich years give students contacts, confidence and references. It would be interesting to find out how long a placement is required to be to deliver such benefits. From our 2017/18 intake, most NTU students will undertake a work placement or equivalent of at least four weeks, but we do not yet know what the optimum length of placement is.
Understanding this issue better will help address two additional questions. Firstly, how can the positive impact best be delivered for all students; what sort of preparation is necessary in the prior curriculum to optimise the benefits? Secondly, if exposure to the work place is beneficial, how can we address the apparent reluctance of some WP students to undertake sandwich years in comparison to their non-WP peers? Nationally, 24% of graduates were from WP backgrounds, but just 19% of sandwich placements courses were taken by WP students. At NTU, 24% of our full-time three-year course graduates were WP compared to just 14% of our sandwich course graduates.
DLHE data suggests that across the sector just 6% of full-time graduates studied a sandwich course and that the effect may be viewed as marginal. However, there is considerable variety between institutions. 18% of NTU graduates studied on a sandwich course. Several institutions had a higher percentage of graduates who had taken this route and five had a greater number. The highest Russell Group entrant in this particular league table had 7%; most were below average, and many registered 0%.
Some universities have thus shown that sandwich degrees can be delivered at scale. Supporting those institutions that combine such programmes with high WP recruitment would seem a very effective method of moving towards the government’s social mobility targets. Flexing OFFA agreements for and focusing Student Opportunity Funding on universities such as NTU would be a good start.
Removing entry tariff from league tables – enabling these universities to concentrate solely on the broader characteristics of applicants beyond qualifications – and changing sector rhetoric to highlight these aspects of excellence would also be beneficial.
Purely looking to Russell Group universities, with a low intake of WP students and low percentage of graduates from sandwich courses, to drive social mobility in the UK, will never be enough.