“We know that, despite their considerable efforts, the most selective institutions have made little or no headline progress in increasing access in recent years.”

Les Ebdon, Director, Office of Fair Access

We draw attention to the striking lack of social mobility in the UK, in part measured by the unequal distribution of undergraduate places at leading universities according to socio-economic background. Every year evidence about this is produced.

60% of young people living in the most prosperous areas (top 20%) enter university, compared with 24% from the poorest. And 22% of young people from the richest fifth of the population get a place at one of the “top 40” universities, but only 2% of the poorest fifth do.

Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Family background and university success: differences in Higher Education access and outcomes in England’, November 2016

Young people from the top 20% of socio-economic backgrounds are 3.7 percentage points more likely to graduate with a First or a 2:1 than young people from the bottom 20%.

Claire Crawford, University of Warwick and Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class’, June 2014

Inequality persists in the world of work. A student from a less advantaged background, gaining the same degree from the same university, has a considerably lower chance of being employed in a graduate occupation when compared to their more privileged peer.

Only 4% of doctors and 6% of lawyers come from working class backgrounds.  Less than one in eight children from a low-income background ends up in a high-income job. When they do, they find it harder than their more privileged peers to get ahead; their salaries are, on average, almost a fifth smaller.

Social Mobility Commission, ‘State of the Nation’, November 2016


We have been delivering programmes to improve fair access and social mobility for over 45 years.  Our experience leads us to believe that:

  • Whilst there is much good work going on in UNIVERSITIES to address fair access, we have concerns about the balance of expenditure between one-off bursaries and fee waivers as opposed to outreach programmes. And outreach must be on-going and has to address attainment – for that to happen there needs to be close cooperation with schools.
  • Many SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES must do more to support their most able students. They need to develop in young people resilience, self-confidence, key study skills and high aspirations. To achieve this, the fostering of independent learning is essential and the utilising of the most able to support their peers is very useful.
  • Although there is GOVERNMENT commitment to improve social mobility, much of it focuses on early years.  While we appreciate that this is important, we are concerned about the relative lack of support for the post-16 sector, a critical period in a young person’s education when key decisions need to be made and attainment needs to be outstanding. In addition, we would like to see recognition that many of the most able students in schools and colleges substantially underachieve; action needs to be taken to address this waste of talent.

Richard Gould, our Chief Executive is a regular speaker at fair access and widening participation conferences. He is a member of the Bridge Group, an independent policy association drawing on the expertise of its professional network of associates to promote social mobility through higher education. He is a guest at All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility events.