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News reports indicate that British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will send his eldest son to a top comprehensive school in London – the same one Tony Blair sent his kids to – despite the rumours that he was to send his son to a private school. As would have been expected these rumours attracted some claims of hypocrisy in the press, given that Nick Clegg is leading government attempts to increase social mobility. Social scientists understand education as playing a dual role in social mobility. Education reduces social mobility because it is the main pathway through which better-off families pass on advantages to their children: in comparison to children from less well-off families, children from better-off families have a higher chance of themselves being better-off as adults mainly because they are more likely to go to university. Education also promotes social mobility, however, in that a university education has benefits for any child irrespective of their social background.

The key role of education in social mobility explains why many social scientists were against the introduction of tuition fees for higher education. Students have been required to pay tuition fees for higher education since 1998/99 and many universities now charge the maximum fee of £9000 per year. In response to concerns over the affordability of higher education for students from less well-off families the Higher Education Act 2004 established the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). Universities that charge more than £6500 per year now need to have an access agreement with OFFA setting out the steps they will take, such as bursaries and studentships, to ensure that children from less well-off families can still afford to go to university.

Whether or not higher tuition fees are discouraging students from less well-off families from going to university is difficult to gauge, however, using routinely available statistics. As part of the admissions process students are asked to provide information on parental occupation and on whether they attended a state or private school. The published information on occupation is subject to a relatively high level of non-response, however, either because young people do not know the occupation of their parents, do not wish to respond or feel that such questions are intrusive. In 2010/11, some universities had recorded information on occupational background for less than 60 percent of students. The information on the type of secondary school students attended is more complete than that on parental occupation with an overall response rate of around 95 percent. The number of students who went to public school is a relatively small group, however, and the type of school students attended is probably a better way of measuring concentrated affluence rather than participation of young people from under-represented groups.

In the absence of suitable data on the socio-economic characteristics of individual entrants, HEFCE uses a geographical indicator (POLAR or Participation of Local Areas) to monitor trends in participation among young people from under-represented groups. The POLAR classification calculates the proportion of the population aged 18 in an electoral ward who entered higher education, with the proportion of entrants from areas in the bottom quintile of the distribution being used as an indicator of the extent of participation of young people from under-represented groups. This way of measuring participation of under-represented groups in higher education assumes that students from areas which have a low rate of participation in higher education are a distinctive group. This might not be the case. Students from areas with low levels of participation in higher education might have similar characteristics to students from areas where more children go on to higher education, it is just that there aren’t so many of them. It is an extremely practical approach, however. The only information required is the postcode of the student which is available for over 99 percent of entrants to higher education.

The most recent statistics show that 11 percent of university entrants in 2009/10 were from low participation areas. Students from low participation areas are therefore under-represented by a factor of around to 2 in the student population in comparison to what would be expected if entrants to university had an even geographical distribution. The figure below shows the percentage of entrants from low participation areas for those universities in England which had more than 500 entrants in 2009/10. The figure shows that there is significant variation across universities in the proportion of entrants coming from low participation areas with the proportion of entrants from low participation areas ranging from over 20 percent at the University of Sunderland to less than 5 percent at the University of Oxford.

Do these figures show that elite universities such as Oxford are not doing enough to attract students from under-represented groups? The results clearly show that universities are selective in their admissions but the elite universities, such as Oxford, maintain that they select on academic merit and not the social background of applicants. If a young person from a less well-off family has the ability and qualifications to succeed, their social characteristics are not a barrier to entry into Oxford, Cambridge or the LSE. Access to higher education may be the pathway through which social class is passed from one generation to the next, but because better-off parents (like Nick Clegg) almost always act to see that their children get the best education available, it is families and not universities which are the main cause of low levels of social mobility.

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