There’s a good deal of justified concern about the new examination of admissions data to Oxford and Cambridge that is reported today.
I don’t propose to cover the issues of social class and ethnicity. They are deeply concerning but others know more than I do and will comment accordingly.
I’m going (to the surprise of nobody) to talk about geographic mobility.
One area that is particularly worrying people is the discovery that the institutions admit a lot of people from the Home Counties and not many from the north of England. And this strikes to the heart of one of the fundamental misconceptions about student behaviour that permeates commentary and policy on HE.
The assumption is that students will look at information – league tables and the like – and then choose the course that is ‘best’ for them and then go to that university. When they graduate, they will gather information again and then travel to wherever the jobs are and get work. This basic assumption drives all sorts of policy and thought about the way the sector can and should operate.
It is the basis on which the whole league table industry rests, for example, and it is a useful assumption which is marred only by one tiny detail.
That’s not what most students do.
Because students and graduates are a lot less mobile than anyone really realised.
If you take a look at data on where graduates go to university compared to where they were domiciled, you find that in 2016, half of graduates (well, 51%) had attended an institution in the same region as where they grew up. Almost all of those graduates will also stay in that region to work, which means that the largest group of 2016 graduates – 45% – never leave their home region either to study or to work. This has been the pattern for at least the last 15 years.
Most graduates go to work in the same region that they studied in (58%). Even more (69%) go to work in the region that they were originally domiciled.
Only 18% of graduates actually do what the assumption is that the typical young university student does – move away from home to go to university and then move again to get a job.
What is particularly interesting is that we don’t really know if this is new behaviour or not. It could be that graduates were never particularly mobile. Few UK graduates have ever gone overseas to start their career, for example.
What this means is that for most institutions, no matter how national or global their professed outlook, the largest group of students (in most cases the majority) are local students who have not travelled far to go to university. In discovering that Oxford and Cambridge have a lot of students who are from relatively nearby, the data just confirms that they’re not that unusual as institutions go, and that it is going to be very difficult to change this pattern.
So the issue becomes – should our two iconic universities both be relatively close together and in the same general part of the country?
The answer is clearly that rather than make students from the North travel South to become proper Home Counties graduates as nature intended all good graduates to be (as a lot of the commentary from people based in the Home Counties suggests), the more constructive approach would be to support one or more institutions outside the east/south east to gain the cachet of Oxbridge, because then – and only then – will students from the rest of the country genuinely start to have the same opportunities as those who grow up nearer to Oxbridge currently enjoy.
This is a lot harder an answer to enact that just to hand a few northern kids a metaphorical Golden Ticket so that they can leave the north and not come back. But if we’re serious about regional inequality, this is what needs to be done. At present the simple fact of the location of Oxford and Cambridge means that they are more of a benefit to the inhabitants of the south-east of the UK than they are to the rest. And this matters, deeply, when they dominate the professions and governance of this country to the extent that they do.
But another interesting question then arises – if Oxbridge can’t manage it, then to what extent can any UK institution realistically be expected to be genuinely national in outlook? We need to think a lot harder about some of these questions.