Universities transform lives. Going to university leads to new ways of seeing the world, to new horizons and networks, and to significantly enhanced job opportunities. But not everyone benefits in the same way. Fewer students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds go to university, and when they do they tend not to do as well as their more privileged peers. The influence of background continues long after graduation.
A student’s race, gender and disability may also affect their experience. Although overall students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have high rates of participation at university, this varies regionally and between institutions, and also between different racial groups. Male and female students tend to choose different subjects, and more women than men go to university. Compared to their peers, graduate outcomes are not as good for black and minority ethnic students, nor for disabled students.
Universities have long worked hard to remedy the impact of disadvantage, and they have made progress with extensive, ambitious and innovative programmes. But differences remain, and are stark.
Social Mobility Advisory Group
The Social Mobility Advisory Group was set up in October 2015, at the request of Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, with the aim of identifying practical ways to address inequality in higher education. The Advisory Group has considered the evidence and drawn together recommendations as to ways forward, acknowledging that there will be no simple solutions to embedded social inequality that passes from generation to generation. No one organisation or sector can resolve such deep-rooted inequalities. Instead, the extensive work that universities have been carrying out over many years needs to be built on, and collaborations and partnerships extended. Change will be incremental.
Key themes from the report
Some consistent themes have emerged from the group's work, and in the report:
- The need for a rigorously evidence-based approach to social mobility
- The importance of evaluation to inform and shape future work
- The need to move away from the perception that people only have one chance for university study, at the age of 18
- Sustained change can only be achieved through collaboration and partnership between universities, schools, colleges and employers
These are complex issues and they will affect different universities in different ways. Universities in the UK are profoundly diverse, and any meaningful response will need to reflect the individual university’s geographical location and circumstances.
The Advisory Group’s recommendations are only a beginning. Universities UK will work with its members, and with schools, employers, students’ unions, the third sector and other partners, to take forward the recommendations.