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The Social Mobility Index (SMI): A welcome and invitation to debate from the Exeter Centre for Social Mobility

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by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Pallavi Banerjee

There is a new English league table on the block! Welcome! The exciting focus of this new ranking concerns social mobility – the clue is in the name and it is called the Social Mobility Index (SMI). Focusing on social mobility differentiates the SMI from other league tables, which often include dimensions such as prestige, research income, staff qualifications, student satisfaction, and employment outcomes.

The SMI is specifically about an institution’s contribution to supporting disadvantaged learners. It uses the OfS model of access to, progression within and outcomes after higher education. Leaning on a methodology developed for a SMI in the US, the English version contains three dimensions: (1) Access, drawing on the Index of multiple deprivation (IMD); (2) Continuation, using progression data into the second year drawing on IMD; and (3) Salaries (adjusted for local purchasing power), using Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) salary data collected one year after graduation.

The SMI report thoughtfully details the rationale for the measures used and is humble in acknowledging that other measures might be developed that are more useful. But do the reflections of the authors go far enough? Let’s take the graduate outcome LEO data for example. These capture salaries 15 months into employment – too early for an outcome measure. It is also not broken down by IMD, there are heaps of missing data in LEO and those who continue into further study are not captured. Low IMD students may or may not be earning the same sort of salaries as their more advantaged peers. The regional weightings seem insufficient in light of the dominance of high-salary regions of both the US and English SMI. These shortcomings make the measure a highly problematic one to use, though the authors are right to endeavour to capture some outcome of higher education.  

We would like a bolder SMI. Social Mobility is not only about income but about opportunities and choice and about enabling meaningful contribution in society. This was recognised in Bowen and Bok’s (2000) evaluation of affirmative action, which measured ‘impact’ not only as income but as civic contribution, health, well-being.  Armstrong and Hamilton (2015) show the importance of friendship and marriage formation as a result of shared higher education experiences. The global pandemic has shown that the most useful jobs we rely on such as early years educators are disgracefully underpaid. The present SMI’s reduction of ‘success’ to a poor measure of economic outcomes needs redressing in light of how far the academic debate has advanced.

Also, social mobility is about more than class, it is about equal opportunities for first generation students, disabled students, men and women, refugees, asylum seekers, global majority ethnic groups as well as local, regional, national and international contributions. It is also about thinking not only about undergraduate student access, progress and success but about postgraduates, staff and the research and teaching at universities.

A really surprising absence in the introduction of this new SMI is reference to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. These are the only global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. First published in 2019, this ranking includes a domain on reducing inequality. The metrics used by the Times Higher ranking are: Research on reducing inequalities (27%); First-generation students (23.1%); Students from developing countries (15.4%); Students and staff with disabilities (11.4%); and Institutional measures against discrimination – including outreach and admission of disadvantaged groups (23.1%). The THE ranking celebrates that institutions also contribute to social mobility through what they research and teach. This dimensions should be borrowed for an English SMI in light of the importance attached to research-led, research-informed and research-evidenced practices in the higher education sector.

The use of individual measures in the THE ranking, of those with parents without a background of higher education (first generation students) and those with disabilities, including staff, has merit.  Yes, individual-level measures are often challenging to ‘operationalise’. But this shouldn’t prevent us from arguing that they are the right measures to aspire to using. However the use of first generation students also highlights that the debate in the UK, focusing on area-level disadvantages such as the IMD or POLAR, is different from the international framing of first generation students measuring the educational background of students.

The inclusion of staff in the THE ranking is an interesting domain that merits consideration. For example, data on, for example, the gender pay gap is easily obtainable in England and it would indicate something about the organisational culture. Athena Swan awards or the Race Equality Charter or other similar awards which are an indicator of the diversity and equality in an institution could be considered as organisational commitments to the agenda and are straight-forward to operationalise.

We warmly welcome the SMI and congratulate Professor David Phoenix for putting the debate centre-stage and note that his briefing is already stimulating debate with Professor Peter Scott’s thoughtful contribution to the debate.  It is important to think about social mobility and added value as part of the league table world. It is in the nature of league tables that they oversimplify the work done by universities and staff and the achievements of their students.

There is real potential in the idea of an SMI and we hope that our contribution to the debate will bring some of these dimensions into the public debate of how we construct the index. This will create a SMI that celebrates good practice by institutions in the space of social mobility and encourages more good practice that will ultimately make higher education more inclusive and diverse while supporting success for all.

SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. Pallavi Amitava Banerjee is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is an SRHE member and Senior Lecturer in Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “The Social Mobility Index (SMI): A welcome and invitation to debate from the Exeter Centre for Social Mobility

  1. Are IMD students less likely to be content in
    new careers, given their social background
    compared to those within the groups they will encounter?
    At worst, mobile but miserable?

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