Jack Brown: London universities are top of the league for social mobility. Why?

Jack Brown: London universities are top of the league for social mobility. Why?

The Sutton Trust released a report yesterday highlighting the significant role a university education can play in facilitating social mobility: it finds that young people from low-income backgrounds are four times more likely to become high earners if they have one. Unsurprisingly, this impact varies according to which university you attend. However, almost all the best performing ones have something in common – they are in, or very close to, London.

The trust ranked UK universities by assessing their social mobility impact on a cohort who attended university in the mid-2000s, with “social mobility” defined in this case by improving income levels. The report looks at both “access” (how many disadvantaged students make it in to a university) and “success” rates (how many of these students significantly improve their income). Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in the East End, which I went to and have great affection for, came out top nationally. But the top ten – in fact, the top 20 – is dominated by London-based institutions.

Most of these are defined as “less selective” universities, with Russell Group members tending to do less well. QMUL is a notable exception. But the London effect is clear and striking. Universities across the country, including my own employer – King’s College London, as you ask, ranked 17th nationally – put a great deal of effort and money into improving their “widening participation” efforts.

The Sutton Trust acknowledges that “social mobility in English universities appears to be gradually moving in the right direction, largely owing to the work done by universities, charities and others in improving levels of access in recent years”. Yet while much of this work is to be commended, it is difficult to argue that London universities are simply better at it, or trying harder, than their equivalents across the country. So why is there, nonetheless, such a strong place-based element to this?

Some of London’s relative success in this area can be explained by the fact that many students who graduate in London then go on to work in the capital, where the higher cost of living is accompanied (at least to some extent) by higher wages. The Sutton Trust controlled their “success” data for this, noting that it might be a distorting factor. They found that this closed the gap between London and the rest slightly, but that it still remained. Fascinatingly, the average “access rate” across London’s universities was nearly 12 per cent – almost five per cent ahead of any other region. London’s universities simply take in more students from deprived backgrounds.

There is also another factor likely at play, which the report mentions but does not explore in great detail. London’s multiculturalism means that ethnic groups that tend to have higher levels of educational attainment, even among those from economically deprived backgrounds, make up a bigger proportion of students. Something similar is true of London’s relatively high-performing schools. So London’s diversity certainly plays a part – as does the fact that it is home to so much deprivation in the first place.

But there is surely still more to it. This is where “levelling up”, and perhaps its greatest challenge, crash into the room. It is true that London has higher poverty rates than any other region of the UK, and that London’s high housing costs exacerbate this. But there is an undeniable fact that physical access to arts and culture, education, and opportunity (in the broadest sense) is strong in the capital. Although there are cultural, social and economic barriers to many of London’s most deprived communities benefitting from the tremendous opportunities that the capital can provide, physical proximity and public transport aren’t among them.

Studying at Queen Mary in the late-mid-2000s, I found I was not unusual in living at home and commuting in from north-east London. There were different reasons for doing this but, despite QMUL being a campus university with students from across the country and around the world, many were from the East End, Essex and across London. The university’s hard work surely played a part in this, but it was possible because of geography and connectivity.

And it starts earlier than that. Although many Zone 1 school children have never been on the Underground or visited the capital’s great free museums and galleries, the possibility is there. London schools are able to take pupils to the Royal Opera House or Shakespeare’s Globe for relatively little expense in time or money. Institutions and individuals from the world’s biggest businesses and banks, national politics, arts and culture are all accessible to charities and educational institutions. London universities can send staff into London schools to run programmes that help explain and normalise university with relative ease.

This range of opportunities “outside the school gates” has been cited elsewhere in other Sutton Trust research as a reason for the capital’s relative educational success. London is a harsh, unforgiving place for many – but it is a place of opportunity for some. There are a million barriers across the capital, but in standing next to them, you can also often see over them.

These sorts of opportunities only really cluster in big cities, where people huddle together to share ideas, opportunities and knowledge in great numbers. So, despite focus groups repeatedly suggesting that to many voters “levelling up” simply means improving the local high street, better connectivity to London and other big cities wouldn’t be a bad thing for those who would like their children to end up earning more money than they did.

Jack Brown is lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. Follow Jack on Twitter. Photo: Queen Mary University of London.

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Categories: Analysis

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