The University of Exeter has announced its receipt of two UK social mobility “silver awards” which it said: “recognise and celebrate UK organisations that are making strides and creating initiatives to advance social mobility”.
It added: “We are pleased our work has been recognised as part of these prestigious awards.”
However the previous week the university was ranked 92nd in this year’s Higher Education Policy Institute Social Mobility Index, which compares the performance of 101 higher education providers in England.
The university was the worst performing member of the Russell Group in the index, eighteen places below the University of Durham, the next worst performing member of the group of self-selected “elite” universities.
The Higher Education Policy Institute is the UK’s only independent research institute that focusses solely on higher education.
Its social mobility index measures the social distance travelled by graduates from each institution by combining access, continuation and outcomes measures for undergraduates for all modes of study except apprenticeships.
In contrast, the UK Social Mobility Awards offer “a unique branding opportunity”, according to its organisers, which “profiles your organisation as a leader in social mobility” while offering “invaluable media exposure”.
The awards’ principal sponsor is Amazon, which has been extensively criticized for the ethics of its business practices and is currently facing a US Federal Trade Commission lawsuit for employing “anticompetitive and unfair strategies”.
Secondary sponsors include Callsign, a “passive authentication” and “digital identity” intelligence provider, outsourcing company Capita, which recently broke the law by failing to pay its employees the minimum wage, and CMC Markets, which provides spread betting, CFD and stock trading platforms.
Organisations are invited to nominate themselves for the awards, which are announced at a black tie dinner for around 500 guests at a luxury hotel in Bayswater where rooms start at around £400 per night.
From a nominations shortlist of 53 organisations and eighteen individuals, the 25 judges on this year’s panel (including representatives of banks, outsourcing firms and retailers) identified thirteen winners and another 92 gold, silver and bronze “honour roll” social mobility champions, among them the University of Exeter.
All the entrants won at least one of the 105 awards announced at this year’s ceremony.
The university’s performance in the 2023 Higher Education Policy Institute Social Mobility Index follows a landmark 2021 study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in partnership with The Sutton Trust and the Department for Education.
This placed it joint bottom among Russell Group universities and 103rd overall in a social mobility league table.
The study analysed data on socio-economic background, education pathways and adult labour market outcomes for several entire school cohorts, covering close to the full population of England, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which higher education attendance influences social mobility chances.
Queen Mary, University of London, recorded the highest mobility rate among a group of top-performing higher education institutions which combine high access rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds with high levels of labour market success.
The study recommended several changes, including increased use of widening participation and social mobility measures in university rankings.
It also suggested that the most selective universities make more ambitious use of contextual admissions to widen access by making reduced grade offers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, reaching out to attract applicants from more diverse communities and providing direct financial support.
Meanwhile recent University of Exeter research has found that young people in the South West are the least likely to attend university in the country.
At age seventeen just 36% say they are very likely to go to university, compared with 63% of young people in London. 42% subsequently attend university, compared with 61% of those in London.
The researchers found that South West higher education access barriers, such as poor public transport and internet access, do not fully explain why teenagers from the region have lower aspirations and progression rates than their peers elsewhere.