Published on 04/03/2021
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  • New report by Higher Education Policy Institute proposes ranking of universities’ impact on social mobility
  • Aston University 2nd in country for making a significant contribution to social mobility

Aston University has been ranked second in the country for making a significant contribution to social mobility in a new report published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

The paper, Designing an English Social Mobility Index (HEPI Debate Paper 27), proposes a ranking of universities’ impact on social mobility and offers a methodology for comparing the contribution of individual English higher education providers to social mobility.

The Index challenges the often-made assumption that only particular kinds of universities make a substantial impact on social mobility, highlighting that, in the context of their individual missions, all types of institution – from research intensives to modern technical universities – can, and do, make a substantial contribution to social mobility.

It explains that the current focus on judging universities by the salaries of their graduates fails to take into account individuals’ personal circumstances and how far they have travelled.

The paper recommends that universities use the Index to reflect on their own contributions to social mobility and that the measure should be promoted as an antidote to the detrimental pressure of other league tables. It also calls for the Government to consider the outputs of this new measure when setting policy, including consideration of investing in those institutions which demonstrate high returns in their approach to social mobility.

The English Social Mobility Index (SMI), which learns from a well-respected comparable indicator in the United States, takes account of the numbers of affected students and their ‘distance travelled’ using existing data such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

In the report, Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), calls on universities in England to use the SMI to reflect on how, in the context of their own institutional missions, they can have the most impact on the social mobility of their graduates. He calls on the Government to invest in institutions that have high returns in their approach to social mobility.

Professor David Phoenix, author of the report, said:

“Existing university league tables perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of behaviour which compounds social advantage - with institutions with the highest entry tariffs admitting students from the most privileged backgrounds who then inevitably go on to command the highest salaries.

“The English SMI is an attempt to highlight, instead, the value that universities make to social mobility by showing the distance – academically and economically – they help their students to travel.

“The results of the Index reflect the diversity of our higher education sector. Some institutions admit moderate numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and enable these individuals to achieve significant social mobility. Others accept many more of these students and, while not moving them as far, make a very substantial cumulative contribution. This model provides a mechanism for institutions to explore how best to effect social mobility within the context of their own strengths and mission.’

Nick Hillman, the director of HEPI and the author of the foreword to the report, said:

“It is often said that existing university rankings should cease because they convey an incomplete picture. This is exactly the wrong way around. We need instead to enrich our understanding of higher education institutions by looking at a bigger range of indicators.

“The new English Social Mobility Index shows what can be achieved. It recognises institutions’ success in boosting the outcomes of a high proportion of students and also those institutions that push a smaller proportion of students a further distance.

“The results shake up the typical league-table order and we hope they will prompt an important debate about how we evaluate the different missions of different institutions.”

Professor Alec Cameron, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Aston University, said:

“Aston is a university that transforms the lives of many of its students and propels them into exciting careers. We don’t talk about social mobility or treat it as an add-on - we make it happen. It is absolutely central to the way we work.

“The employability of our graduates and their life and career success are of huge importance to us. It is a reason why so many students come to Aston University.

“We are strongly committed to ensuring that our undergraduate students take part in work placement opportunities. It is not just about improving access to higher education for our student demographic - we firmly believe that it is ‘getting on’ not just ‘getting in’ that matters. It is therefore important to us that students access degree programmes that provide them with a positive future.”



Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University was named University of the Year 2020 by The Guardian and the University’s full time MBA programme has been ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking. The Aston MBA has been ranked 12th in the UK and 85th in the world. The University also has TEF Gold status in the Teaching Excellence Framework. 

For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Rebecca Hume, Press & PR Officer, on 07557 745416 or email

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