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The next government should introduce a social mobility premium

Portrait of Vice-Chancellor Professor Ebrahim Adia

Policymakers need to acknowledge that supporting students through to graduation equitably costs money. Professor Ebrahim Adia, Vice Chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton, proposes a new social mobility premium.

I am relatively new to the role of vice chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton and, like all UK university leaders, I am trying to make sense of the complex financial, policy and regulatory environment to develop a medium-term strategic response.

I recall a former vice chancellor of mine talking about the “perfect storm” for universities back in 2011. With the benefit of hindsight, that was more a gentle breeze when compared with the challenges faced by the university sector at present.

Like many of my vice chancellor colleagues I am concerned that tuition fees have hardly changed for over a decade, cost pressures on universities have increased significantly over the same period, and recruiting more international students to remain financially sustainable is under threat from a less than helpful policy environment.

It is a paradox that UK universities are engines of innovation and inclusive growth and central to the delivery of multiple government priorities, yet political resolve is lacking to address the current financial sustainability challenge. Though at present policy inertia would serve the university sector better than the type of policy interventions we are experiencing.

Rocks and hard places

The obvious solution to our current financial situation is a fundamental root-and-branch review of higher education funding to create a more sustainable future. But it is unlikely this will occur within the next couple of years no matter which political party is in power. In the interim, universities will need to continue to control costs, drive efficiencies and deliver more for less. While this picture sounds bleak for the future of higher education – and there is no doubt that many universities will face serious challenges in managing their finances – it also forces us to focus on what matters the most.

At Wolverhampton, we are coming to the view that trends that have been in train for the past decade within the university will need to be accelerated. Given that 71 per cent of our students are first in their family to access university education and over 80 per cent are commuting students (often with marginal student identities and a very different pattern of engagement with the university) we believe that it is time to reimagine the purpose and operating model of a modern university. This is the challenge we have set ourselves and it will result in a very different and, I hope, distinctive approach that better serves the needs of our diverse student body.

However, this will take time. A fundamental review of the organisational framework of a modern university will require significant planning, investment and managed risk. This is the challenge of double running an existing operating model whilst designing a new one – akin to rebuilding the plane as it is in mid-flight. In the meantime, universities like mine continue to lose too many students not because we lack the solutions but because of a lack of capacity in our academic and professional services to support students in a timely way at key points of academic and personal vulnerability. This often leads to a waste of individual potential and a significant loss to the regional economy of the West Midlands.

Policymakers who are quick to criticise universities’ disinclination to change in response to shifts in their external environment forget the costs and risks involved to current students, staff, and communities. Universities are autonomous organisations, but we are funded primarily through public means, and we exist to further vital public goods. When change is needed, leaving universities to carry those risks without support will lead to worse outcomes overall.

I propose that the next government introduces a new Social Mobility Premium, paid to universities in proportion to the number of first-in-family or students from low-income neighbourhoods they recruit and, crucially, support to a successful graduation. The idea of a Social Mobility Premium for higher education is not especially new and variations of the initiative have existed in the past. However, the current circumstances mean that the moment is now to revisit the policy and renew the public purposes of higher education.

Payment by results

Once we emerge from the fog of an election year, we can only hope a new government adopts a more coherent, conciliatory and sustainable higher education policy. A Social Mobility Premium should be attractive either to a new Conservative government that is keen to upskill the UK (instead of having an over-reliance on overseas skilled workers) or a Labour government, which is likely to position itself in the ideological Third Way camp akin to Blair’s New Labour, with a focus on opportunity and social mobility.

A Social Mobility Premium could provide some much-needed financial support for universities like Wolverhampton; a university that is committed to creating real opportunity and incurring the higher costs associated with helping students that require the additional support to succeed. We are gathering independent evidence to itemise these costs by student demographic. A Social Mobility Premium will inevitably have a disproportionate benefit for universities in the MillionPlus Group but this is the case with other research and teaching funding streams where the MillionPlus Group fares less well.

A premium could be targeted in a number of ways – my preference is that it is attached to students that are either first in family to go to university and/or that live in a POLAR quintile 1 neighbourhood. The premium should be linked both to widening participation and to continuation, completion and progression. In other words, a performance-related element would be acceptable that aligns with the Office for Students regulatory framework which is focused as much on outcomes as it is on access.

As the University of Wolverhampton develops its new strategy and five-year financial plan, a Social Mobility Premium would enable us to double down on our commitment as an anchor institution. It will help the university to transform itself at pace, increase student completion rates (changing the life opportunities of many thousands of students and their families) and give a boost to the economic ambitions of the City, the Black Country and the West Midlands – an ambition that fully aligns with our mission as a university of opportunity and employability.

This article first appeared in WONKHE on 26 February 2024.

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