This article is more than 9 years old

Delivering enhanced social mobility

Michael Brown, the former Vice Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University reflects on his new report: 'Higher Education as a tool of social mobility: Reforming the delivery of HE and measuring professional graduate output success'. Michael looks at the problem with purely focusing on 'input' measures rather than 'output' and suggests new ways to measure the positive social mobility outcomes in the sector. As well as looking ahead to the future, Michael reflects on the sector's reaction to these ideas and the debate surrounding the report.
This article is more than 9 years old

Michael Brown is the former Vice Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

Last month CentreForum published my paper; Higher Education as a tool of social mobility: Reforming the delivery of HE and measuring professional graduate output success.

The paper’s main points were:

1. Government policy on social mobility in HE is far too limited, being focused on ‘input’ measures – the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being admitted to universities – rather than ‘output’ measures – the number of graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds who actually attain professional employment.

2. The HE diet being delivered to undergraduates in the UK (and indeed widely internationally) is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, since the traditional approach of developing subject mastery alone needs crucially to be enhanced by the addition of systematic graduate and high-level personal skills.

3. The success of universities in delivering social mobility outcomes should be measured, recognising both the tangible accomplishment of attaining significant ‘value added’ for disadvantaged students in the form of graduate-level employment, and the greater resources required to effect this.

4. An index of success – the Social Mobility Graduate Index (SMGI) – is proposed, based on existing graduate data that is used to monitor employability in universities, and the resulting ‘output’ measures for each university were listed. It is suggested that such an index would be a useful adjunct to existing league tables of performance, especially in assisting students and parents to decision-making.

Reactions to the Paper

Reactions to the paper were revealing. The most immediate and negative reaction came from the Russell Group. Other responses, both from the academic world and from business, were both positive and encouraging.

Not unsurprisingly, Russell Group universities did not score very highly on the SMGI. Although encouragement has been given to all universities to widen participation in undergraduate courses for students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, Russell Group universities have only made limited progress in this area.

The issue raised about the SMGI by the Russell Group had already been fully rehearsed and analysed in the paper, which had also suggested several improvements in the data collection of graduate first destinations if the SMGI approach is to be used effectively in the future.

The Russell Group’s first claim was said that that the data used as a basis for the index refers to graduates six months after graduating, and is therefore not indicative of final career destinations.

Clearly, there are limitations to a census taken so early, but it is currently all we have. Indeed, universities have been comfortable in using it as an indicator of simple employability outcomes for some time.

The second complaint was that their own universities have significant numbers of students going on to further study, and it was suggested that these were all undertaking further study at post-graduate level leading to professional careers.

Even if the data is reworked making this most generous assumption, it is clear that Russell Group universities have considerable scope to enhance their social mobility outcomes.

In this work there has been no intention to disparage Russell Group institutions, but rather to indicate that there are many others who do not share their pre-eminent brand value but are nonetheless delivering great social mobility outcomes.

The proposed enhanced SMGI should of course be only a single and specific indicator of success among a wide array of others.

Positive reactions

Aside from the Russell Group, many thoughtful and well-considered responses have been received. Several senior figures in HE as well as many Vice Chancellors got in touch directly to support the broad approach taken by the paper, and to express agreement that the fundamental issues about ‘fitness for purpose’ needed raising and deserve serious debate.

Similarly, several senior figures in the business world expressed their appreciation, and their surprise about the limited horizons of current Government policy for social mobility in HE.

They agreed that ‘input’ for disadvantaged students is a valid starting point, but that there is also a critical need for monitoring social mobility ‘outputs’ afterwards. As one senior commercial figure put it, it’s akin to a factory controlling the raw materials but having no quality control at the end of the production line.

There has yet to be any reaction to the proposals from the Government. However, given the rising estimates of the cost of the loans system, the advantage to government in encouraging productive employment prospects for all graduates, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds must surely be high on the agenda.

The Big Questions

Three big questions facing HE and its role in social mobility have been under debated, and until serious consideration is given to reviewing the current model, will likely remain that way.

What do we expect of HE?

Social mobility offers not only greater social cohesion but also greater productivity. What then can government and society reasonably expect universities to contribute to the advancement of social mobility?

More broadly, what should society and government expect from higher education in the twenty-first century, within a rapidly changing and competitive global landscape? And are they fully geared to meet the business challenges of the global economy?

What does HE expect of itself?

Are universities themselves fully satisfied that the traditional diet of higher education is delivering appropriate development for the majority of students? Should not wider elements of personal development, especially in graduate and high-level skills, be an integrated and assessed part of a modern undergraduate curriculum, most particularly for disadvantaged students who require more support?

Both the CBI and the NUS have called for these changes for some years. It is time HE undertook an internal audit.

What can government do to encourage transformation?

How can government encourage change in universities to deliver enhanced social mobility outputs in the form of more fully formed and employable graduates? A broadened curriculum will of course benefit all, not only the initially disadvantaged.

If a university takes the decision to carry out this kind of radical change, will they be encouraged and supported to do so?

The way forward

As primary funder of undergraduate teaching, government needs to adopt ‘output’ measures for social mobility in universities and not the current practice of only looking at ‘input measures’. Without this impetus, there is little incentive for universities to contemplate change.

The second step is to determine a reasonably robust measure for assessing the success of universities in delivering social mobility outcomes, perhaps using the SMGI as the starting point, but with more refined data collection from the first destinations survey and perhaps some weighting for subject mix.

Achieving fundamental university-wide change (culturally, operationally, and in resource distribution) requires change management skills and leadership determination from the entire senior team as well as the full support of the governing body. The solution is not simply to bolt on something new, but to review and re-invent.

Exercises in radical programme change have already taken place in a handful of UK institutions, including Liverpool John Moores University where I was formerly Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive.

Many others look at developments like this with interest, but may feel at risk in contemplating radical change alone. Progress within the sector up to now has been on an individual basis, and by definition piecemeal.

There could be some utility now in several institutions – perhaps four or five – coming together in cooperation with business leaders to examine what scope and benefit there is for curriculum enrichment, thus gaining from a shared approach and the exchange of ideas.

Critically, they will need to resolve how enhanced student skills can be independently evidenced. The result could be a group of universities that are distinctive in the marketplace and can offer an enhanced and internationally attractive higher education option. Others in the sector may then see the benefits.

Significant enhancement in higher education can be achieved sooner rather than later. Whether the sector is brave enough to undertake a fundamental review of its own core business remains to be seen.

In the interests both of the nation and of its own graduates, the world of higher education should now be prepared to raise its game.

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