Chalk + Talk: Social Mobility and Higher Education

Despite efforts to increase and widen university participation over the last 10-15 years, there still appear to be significant socio-economic inequalities in higher education attendance and attainment and in labour market prospects after graduation.

In the latest of our ESRC sponsored Chalk + Talk series, Dr Claire Crawford  (University of Warwick and the IFS) discussed up-to-date evidence on the magnitude of these inequalities and how they have changed over time. Download Dr Crawford’s slide pack here.

Who is most likely to go to university?

Investigating socio-economic status and secondary school performance as drivers of inequality, Dr Crawford’s research suggests that across different socioeconomic groups, participation in higher education (at both at highly and lower rated institutions) has increased. Lower socioeconomic groups in particular have experienced a significant increase in participation, causing overall levels of socio-economic inequality of participation to decrease marginally (as seen in the figure below). However, a stark difference in both in participation and university destination remains between different socio-economic groups – young people from poorer backgrounds are still less likely to go to university, and moreover, are less likely to go to a highly rated institution.



Whilst much of the gap in higher education participation between the richest and the poorest students can be explained by background characteristics (such as socio-economic group and ethnicity), results at Key Stage 2 have also been identified as an important factor in determining achievement in later life.  Interventions in secondary school therefore have a vital role to play in terms of “widening” participation in higher education.

Who does well at university?

Comparing drop-out and degree-completion rates, and the percentages of students who graduate with a first or a 2:1 (in the below graph, by percentile of socio-economic background) reveals a socio-economic gradient to successes at university – on average, poorer students are more likely to drop out of university, or graduate with a degree grade below a 2:1.



However, this overview may mask other potential drivers of inequality. Dr Crawford argues that the characteristics of the school at which students sat their A-Levels matter. Students from high performing schools are, on average, more likely to drop out, less likely to complete a degree and less likely to get a first or a 2:1 (once differences in attainment prior to university entry is accounted for). Whilst this may appear counter-intuitive at first, it suggests that children at lower performing schools may be underachieving before they reach higher education, and that they may have within them the potential to achieve higher grades at university compared to their counterparts with the same grades from better performing schools.

Clearly, grades at key stages may not necessarily the best indicator or potential success at higher education, particularly at low-scoring schools. To account for this, universities may wish to look towards a contextualised admissions process that focuses on student’s potential rather than the current grade-centric approach.

Labour market outcomes: Is higher education a route to social mobility?

Those who go into higher education tend to earn more in later life, but the gains vary by institution, subject and degree class. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and lower performing schools are less likely to attend a high status institution, less likely to complete their degree, and less likely to be awarded a 2:1 or above; suggesting that simply encouraging more students from these backgrounds to go to university may not be sufficient to improve overall social mobility.

Furthermore, when students from private and state schools, who went to the same universities, studied the same subjects, and went into the same occupations are compared; there is a persistent gap in earnings after graduation. The reasons for this gap remain fairly opaque, but the conclusion to be drawn is that currently those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and state schools do not appear to benefit to the same extent from higher education, and this is an enduring challenge for social mobility in the UK.


Alongside this blog, you can catch up on Chalk + Talk sessions via Twitter using #SMFchalktalk. You can also download Dr Crawford’s full slide pack here.

Chalk + Talk is the SMF’s popular lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the ESRC. Chalk + Talk brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.

Image Sponsor Logo ESRC


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