The Society for Research into Higher Education

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

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.

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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me ( to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.

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Mind the Gap – Gendered and Caste-based Disparities in Access to Conference Opportunities

In an interview with Conference Inference [1] editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.

Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)

EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?

NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. Continue reading

Camille Kandiko

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How welcoming is Britain?

By Camille Kandiko Howson

Higher education recruitment has become a political issue. Stricter visa regimes for foreign students were implemented in April 2012. International students have fewer opportunities to work in the UK after they finish their degree, and it has become more challenging for partners of students to work and study. The House of Lords issued a report criticising the government’s immigration policy, to decrease immigration overall whilst also increasing international student numbers, and its effect on student recruitment. With the government’s stance on immigration, Britain does not seem a welcoming place for many international students. Taking a tough stance on immigration for the domestic market also sends signals abroad.

There is a complicated web of “push and pull” factors with international student recruitment. Changes in domestic economic markets, the development of high quality institutions at home and opportunities for on-line study can keep formerly mobile students at home. However, large scale scholarship schemes can encourage students to study abroad, such as Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program, which aims to facilitate sending over 100,000 students abroad. Continue reading