The case for social mobility league tables

The State of the Nation 2016: Social Mobility in Great Britain report from the Social Mobility Commission is not a short read, but its analysis is as compelling as it is depressing. Universities loom large. The most widely discussed of its recommendations within the higher education sector states “The government should make social mobility reputational [sic] for universities, by publishing an annual social mobility league table ranking different institutions’ performance”.

I could not agree more. Indeed, I have suggested to Les Ebdon in the past that he talks to the compilers of the main university league tables about including such performance in their rankings. At the same time, he could also point out the candidates for the league table metrics it could replace. Who still believes, for example, that spend-per-student has anything to do with the effectiveness of an institution? Who dissents from the view that entry tariff discourages some institutions from being more inclusive in their recruitment? Unfortunately, there is nothing in Ebdon’s statement to indicate he is going to take this report as a cue to do so.

I would go further. OFFA should make the achievement of agreed targets on widening participation one of the entry gates to the TEF, and thus a requirement for raising fees. I say this not just because it will create a greater focus on this issue within the sector, but also as it could serve to eliminate alternative – and frankly intrusive – ideas that government might come up with in pursuit of greater social mobility.

Like most others, I am opposed to the government making the sponsorship of a failing school a requirement of the TEF. In my view, governments have authority to specify ends but should be very cautious about being overly prescriptive as to means. If enhanced social mobility is the end, and fairer access to higher education is one method of delivery, then introducing strengthened incentives into the OFFA target regime seems a sensible way forward.

I am sensitive to concerns that such an approach may compromise organisational autonomy. However, by not appearing to making progress fast enough on widening participation – and seeming to resist steps which she believes will help – I fear that we are inviting more unwelcome interventions from a Prime Minister who does not seem much concerned with the finer feelings of universities. The OfS adopting a more stringent access strategy may give it the ability to give the sector more air cover on this issue.

Part of the problem is the collusion of many of us around the sector with the continued narrative of ‘top’ and ‘prestigious’ universities that also informs the Social Mobility Commission’s report; at some points it refers directly to the Russell Group but I assume this is what the other terms also designate. It does not pause to ask the question: top at what? As the forthcoming TEF looks poised to demonstrate, the universities which are best at teaching – the recipients of the gold award – will look different to the established hierarchy based on longevity and research.

This is because the DfE has remained committed to using data in some of the metrics that reflect the nature of universities’ intakes. Those that take the highest percentage of students from low participation neighbourhoods will have to be very good at retaining these students and very good at helping them find graduate level jobs in order to qualify for the highest award. If that is what makes them a top university, then it is probably sensible for students from those neighbourhoods to apply to them. The growing pressure on the higher tariff institutions to widen access is in part a consequence of our collective failure to be clear that universities can – and should – be excellent at different things.

Of course, we can probably be confident that neither government nor Les Ebdon need do anything when it comes to the league tables, whose compilers can give TEF awards a numerical value and then build it into the next iteration of their rankings. Whether it is the TEF itself, the new league table criteria it may spawn, or a more stringent OFFA regime, universities’ contribution to social mobility matters, and will thus increasingly need to be measured.

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