Jack Brown: London universities are frontrunners when it comes to social mobility. Why?

Engagement, diversity, closeness and connectivity play a role

The Sutton Trust released a report yesterday highlighting the significant role higher education can play in facilitating social mobility: it finds that young people from low-income backgrounds are four times more likely to make good money if they have one. Unsurprisingly, these effects vary depending on the university you attend. However, almost all of the top performing have one thing in common – they are located in or very close to London.

The Trust assessed UK universities by assessing their impact on social mobility on a cohort who attended university in the mid-2000s, with “social mobility” being defined in this case as improving income levels. The report examines both “access” (how many disadvantaged students make it to a university) and “success” rates (how many of these students significantly improve their income). The Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in the East End, which I attended and for which I have great affection, has emerged as the front runner nationwide. But the top ten – actually the top 20 – are dominated by London 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 noticeable. Universities across the country, including my own employer – King’s College London, you ask, number 17 nationwide – have put a lot of effort and money into improving their “participation” efforts.

The Sutton Trust recognizes that “social mobility in English universities seems to be gradually moving in the right direction, largely due to the work of universities, charities and others to improve access over the past few years”. Yet while much of this work is commendable, it is difficult to argue that London universities are simply better at, or more trying, than their countrywide equivalents. Why is there such a strong location-based element anyway?

Part of London’s relative success in this area can be explained by the fact that many students who graduate in London end up working in the capital, where the higher cost of living (at least in part) goes hand in hand with higher wages. The Sutton Trust checked its “success data” and found that this could be a distorting factor. They found that this bridged the gap between London and the rest of the world a bit, but it still persists. Fascinatingly, the average “admission rate” to London universities was nearly 12 percent – nearly five percent more than any other region. London’s universities are simply accepting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Another factor likely also plays a role, which the report mentions but does not explore in detail. The multiculturalism of London means that ethnic groups with a tendency towards higher educational qualifications, even among those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, make up a larger proportion of students. The same applies to London’s relatively high-performing schools. So London’s diversity certainly plays a role – as does the fact that there is so much deprivation in general.

But there is certainly more to it than that. This is where the “leveling” and perhaps its greatest challenge crashes into the room. It is true that London has higher poverty rates than any other region in the UK and the high cost of housing in London makes it worse. But it is undeniable that physical access to art and culture, education and opportunity (in the broadest sense) is strong in the capital. While many of London’s most deprived communities have cultural, social and economic barriers to capitalizing on the vast opportunities the capital can offer, physical proximity and public transport are not one of them.

When I was studying at Queen Mary in the late 2000s, I found that living at home and commuting from northeast London wasn’t uncommon. There were a number of reasons for this, but while QMUL is a campus university with students from all over the country and around the world, many came from the East End, Essex and all over London. The university’s hard work certainly helped, but it was possible because of the geography and connectivity.

And it starts earlier. Although many Zone 1 school children have never been on the subway or visited the capital’s great free museums and galleries, the chance is there. London schools can take their students to the Royal Opera House or Shakespeare’s Globe with relatively little time and money. Institutions and individuals from the world’s largest corporations and banks, national politics, arts and culture are accessible to charities and educational institutions. London universities can send staff to London schools to run programs that help explain and normalize the university with relative ease.

This variety of “out of school” opportunities has been cited elsewhere in other Sutton Trust studies as the reason for the capital’s relative educational success. London is a harsh, unforgiving place for many – but a place of opportunity for some. There are a million barriers in the capital, but if you stand by them you can often see them.

These kinds of opportunities only pile up in big cities, where people are huddled together to exchange ideas, opportunities and knowledge in large numbers. While focus groups keep suggesting that for many voters “moving up” just means improving the local high street, better connections to London and other major cities wouldn’t be a bad thing for those who want their children to end up making more money, than they did.

Jack Brown is a 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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