Durham University falls in Social Mobility Index rankings


The 2023 English Social Mobility Index has revealed that Durham University has placed 74th out of 101 universities, falling 4 places from last year, for improving students’ social mobility.

Published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and compiled by London South Bank University (LSBU), the English Social Mobility Index measures the social mobility of graduates across higher education institutions by looking at changes in an individual’s socio-economic situation after gaining a specialist qualification. The index does not include apprenticeships.

The results presented in the league table are determined through factors such as access, continuation and graduate outcomes. Access is said to be given the highest weight when compiling the table because it looks at students from disadvantaged backgrounds and whether they have successfully entered university. 

Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of LSBU and compiler of the index for HEPI, said: “While numerous studies demonstrate that your personal circumstances where you grow up have a strong bearing on your likelihood of achieving upward mobility, the 2023 Higher Education Social Mobility Index shows that your background does not have to determine your future.”

He continued, “Universities of all types, up and down the country, are countering expectation by consistently delivering improved economic prosperity for some of our most disadvantaged students.”

Halle Afflick, Vice President of the 93% Club Durham, spoke to Palatinate about Durham’s ranking in the Social Mobility Index: “Durham University’s decline in several table rankings is regrettably not surprising, since Durham University has disregarded the needs of both its staff and students over the previous year.

“Durham University’s social mobility requires a lot of work, although several departments have fantastic networks in place like the “First Generation Scholars” network at Durham’s Sociology Department.”

“Durham University’s decline in several table rankings is regrettably not surprising”

halle afflick, vice president of 93% club durham

To explore social mobility at Durham, Palatinate spoke to some students from working-class backgrounds on their experiences and support from the university so far.

James, a second-year student from Collingwood College, spoke highly of the university and their accessibility for working-class students.

He told Palatinate “As a working-class, mature [24 years-old], disabled student who also suffered bereavement in my first year, I’ve definitely been in touch with support a few times […] I can truthfully say Durham has opened doors that my pre-uni self never imagined possible.”

He continued to talk about how his college has provided “fantastic” support for him; “from receiving subsidised Summer Ball tickets, to helping cover the cost of sporting equipment, I’ve never had an application denied.”

James also described his achievements in the real-world, discussing how the disability support department helped him land a summer Marketing internship in his first year. He also managed to gain a place in Durham’s Global Internships department which enabled him to go on a fully funded 8-week internship to Vietnam.

Speaking about the trip to Vietnam, he told Palatinate: “As a student who never had family holidays growing up, and had never been abroad, this was a pretty unbelievable opportunity for me. It is genuinely the highlight of my 24 years.”

He continued to say: “From life experiences and travel, to boosting my future employability with 2 corporate and 1 international internships, I can genuinely say Durham has done well by me. Proactivity was absolutely required but support has been there whenever I’ve asked.”

“From receiving subsidised Summer Ball tickets, to helping cover the cost of sporting equipment, I’ve never had an application denied”

james, a second-year student at durham

Ellie, a third-year student from Grey College, also told Palatinate that she has received “reasonable” support from the university – mentioning that she receives the grant and has also used the counselling and careers service.

Since studying at Durham, Ellie told Palatinate that she has done a placement year and worked a part-time job during 2nd year – a job that she found through the university.

Speaking further of the placement year, she disclosed: “I did Human Factors Engineering in Bristol, it was interesting, not something I had any experience with before and different from uni in a good way. Having a regular income was a nice change and working 9-5 made it much easier to switch off.”

Another student who wished to remain anonymous told Palatinate that they receive the Durham grant as part of their support from the university. The student also said that their JCR fee and gown were covered by their college bursary.

The student mentioned the extra money they had to spend on living items before moving to university alongside £140 for the JCR levy and £50 for a second-hand gown, saying that this caused them “a lot of panic.” The JCR fee and gown being paid for was described as “a big relief at the time.”

The student also said that they found their current tutoring job through the university as it was listed on the Arts and Humanities Vacancy emails. Talking about the tutoring job, the student told Palatinate: “The University name helped in my application. The interviewer claimed that they’ve had good results from hiring Durham students before.”

The JCR fee and gown being paid for was described as a “big relief at the time”


When asked about how securing a place at Durham made the student feel, they told Palatinate, “When I first received my acceptance my family and I were incredibly excited.” They shared how neither of their parents had been to university, with their older sister attending a less prestigious one. The fact that they were the first in their immediate family to go to a university “like Durham” was described as a cause for “a lot of celebration.”

However, the student continued to say how they experienced a sense of imposter syndrome as they were eligible for a contextual offer and therefore received reduced grades for their application. They told Palatinate that they “had to be reassured that these grades were reduced for a reason and that they still meant that I had earned my place at the university.”

To gain more understanding of how being working-class can affect a student and their social mobility, Palatinate spoke to Lee Elliot Major, a Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, the country’s first professor in this area.

Professor Lee Elliot Major spoke to Palatinate about how he was the first in his family to go to university, saying how he’s “very proud to come from “what would be classed as a sort of working-class or low-income background.” Prof. Major’s work is dedicated to improving the prospects of people from ‘under resourced’ backgrounds: “the principle for me is that background shouldn’t determine what you do, whatever that is in life.”

When asked why imposter syndrome may be more likely to be experienced by working-class students, Prof. Major told Palatinate: “I’m afraid it’s part of being a human being.” He then spoke about how imposter syndrome can never be fully addressed, emphasising the fact that the only thing we can do is share our experiences and anxieties with people that have similar feelings.

Sharing a personal anecdote, he goes on to say that an individual is never going to address imposter syndrome fully, expressing that while he has become very honest about his background, “I think it took me a long time to get there because even early career stage I still felt that I had to work harder than anyone else to make sure that I proved myself.”

When considering imposter syndrome and feelings of segregation that working-class students may experience, he continued to say that working-class people are called “awkward climbers” in terms of social mobility. Despite Prof. Major having jobs that placed himself in worlds that are considered middle-class, he said that he never, even to this day, “feel[s] quite at home there, but I have nowhere to go to call home.”

“The principle for me is that background shouldn’t determine what you do, whatever that is in life”

professor lee elliot major

Another student also shared their experience with Durham, particularly touching on support and grant scheme that the university offers – a scheme that provides extra financial support (from £779 to £2,500) based on household incomes between £47,200 and less than £30,000. Next year, this fund will be increasing by 6.7%.

The student told Palatinate that last year they received the maximum grant and maintenance loan. However, upon starting the new academic year, the student had found that they didn’t receive any grant payment this month – anxiously contacting the university to find out why.

The student disclosed that the university advised there was an issue with the new system remittances, with the email stating, “it may be that will not receive this [payment].” The university also told the student that most students aren’t receiving remittances and this issue was currently being looked at.

In response to this, the student said, “there were emails sent about Durham increasing its grants due to the cost-of-living crisis and the fact that they may not pay them due to an ‘issue’ is something they did not communicate.”

The student expressed their frustration and continued to say that if they had known they weren’t going to receive the grant, they would have gotten a job: “After rent and paying for my security deposit for next year, my maintenance is almost gone and if I didn’t have savings, I would be in a really bad situation right now. That fund helped me out so much last year and it would’ve been nice just to get a heads up.”

After going to a different point of contact, the student found the university to be apologetic about the issue, assuring the student that they should be receiving their grant fund in the near future. The student then said they now feel a lot better knowing they’ll be getting it soon.

“If I didn’t have savings, I would be in a really bad situation right now”


A spokesperson from Durham University told Palatinate: “We faced a technical issue affecting our ability to make payments to a small number of students. We quickly put in place a solution – contacting affected students directly and requesting information to ensure payments could be made securely via an alternative method.”

Upon asking whether universities are doing enough to help alleviate the financial burden for working-class students, Prof. Major shared that he personally thinks there should be more support and “it probably has to be means tested as always.” He told Palatinate that he thinks that there should be a national debate on this subject, especially due to rising costs.

He continued to say that he also worries that universities “maybe need to do more work to make sure they’re on top of those students so that they’re aware of what’s going on.” While he said that he recognises that some universities do this well, Prof. Major emphasised how universities cannot just rely on students to come to them with their problems.

Another student, remaining anonymous, spoke to Palatinate about the support they have received as a working-class student that also comes from a carer background and single-parent household.

They described financial support to be “very helpful but at times” but “it doesn’t come when you need it in peak seasons.” The student explained how the Hardship Fund applications come out in mid-November and then you have to wait 2-3 weeks, usually arriving after rent and other financial commitments have been paid out. The student tends to use the fun (which ranges from £100-£500) towards their accommodation and general living.

To help with costs of food and accommodation further, they also receive the maximum grant.

Prof. Major emphasised how universities cannot just rely on students to come to them with their problems

The student also mentioned receiving a loan laptop from the university but said that this can sometimes make them feel “a bit segregated in my lectures and seminars when everyone [else] has a Mac.” They told Palatinate: “I just sometimes feel a bit awkward in workshops and seminars because there is a big fat sticker on the front saying, ‘Durham University.’ I have had some people ask me questions like ‘is this a loan laptop?,’ which might be asked innocently but it can be awkward and steer you off from actually committing to your work.”

Upon asking Prof. Major about how environmental factors can contribute to the influence of feelings of segregation and imposter syndrome, he said that cultural barriers are equally as important as material ones. Talking about how people make stereotypes or label people from different backgrounds “sometimes unconsciously,” he said that universities need to be sensitive to these things happening when providing a laptop: “maybe there shouldn’t be a university label on it.”

Talking about material and cultural assumptions, “from assuming a person is used to independent learning in a way they haven’t experienced before, to social events,” he said that of all the cultural assumptions made, “working-class culture shouldn’t be seen as a less worthy culture as a middle-class culture […] we should celebrate working-class culture, we shouldn’t see it as an inferior thing.”

Further, referring to the job opportunities available to working-class students at Durham, the student also told Palatinate how they “really believe on a personal level [that] there isn’t enough outreach being done by the university.

“There aren’t enough offers or job opportunities, postings or placements aimed at helping working-class or disadvantaged students.” The signposting is “obscure in the sense that it’s not always clear who it is intended to be for.”

A spokesperson for Durham University said: “We have made great progress in attracting students from under-represented backgrounds to Durham in recent years, such that for the academic year 2022/23 around a quarter of our home undergraduate students had been accepted through our widening access schemes.

“We encourage applications from students from all backgrounds with the merit and potential to succeed at Durham, and our Access and Participation Plan details our extensive work in this area – including schools outreach and wider work with schools and other organisations.”

“We encourage applications from students from all backgrounds with the merit and potential to succeed at Durham”

a spokesperson for durham univeristy

A report carried out in November of 2021 by the Sutton Trust called ‘Universities and Social Mobility,’ with the research calculating mobility rate based on how many disadvantaged students get into university and go on to be high earners after graduation revealed that 22% of graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds (based off eligibility for Free School Meals) were in the top quintile of the population at age 30 for achieved earnings. The number of graduates that come from private schools who were grouped in the top earners was 46%.

This shows how students from privileged backgrounds are twice as likely to be in the top earners category after graduation.

Other statistics from The Sutton Trust’s website highlight the large margins between opportunities for working-class pupils versus those of higher class. The website notes that students who attend independent school are 2x more likely to gain a place at a “leading university.”

Further, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was reported that 1 in 2 private schools were almost twice as likely to still be teaching A Level content as state schools during lockdown – showing the huge disadvantages that arise for working-class students and their subsequent progression into higher education as an effect of the pandemic.

Talking further about why he became a Professor of Social Mobility, Prof. Major expressed the reasons for pursuing a very personal and professional passion: “The problem in modern Britain is that we have very low levels, or lower than they should be at least, of social mobility […] we live in a very unequal society and one in which, we have a very unlevel playing field.

“If you come from a background where you don’t have all those resources, support, it’s very difficult to get on in life – it’s very difficult to be honest, these days, to even get a decent life, let alone climb the social ladder.”

He continued: “I think the generations growing up now are facing bigger challenges than any generation.”

“I think the generations growing up now are facing bigger challenges than any generation”

professor lee elliot major

Students from working-class backgrounds may also be disadvantaged when it comes to applying for masters/postgraduate degrees, as researcher Jose Luis Mateos-Gonzalez discusses financial boundaries that may deter poorer students.

Mr. Mateos told the European Sociological Association conference in Manchester of August 2019 that “those from advantaged backgrounds are much more likely to enrol in a master’s course.”

“The reason why students from a working-class background may be deterred from studying at a golden triangle university is probably funding. Those students enrolling in a master’s degree in 2017/18 had access to a government-backed loan capped at £10,280. In most cases, this amount hardly covers master’s fees in leading universities, which tend to have higher than average fees.

“This, together with the high maintenance costs in cities such as London, Cambridge or Oxford, may stop poorer students from pursuing a master’s degree in a golden triangle university.”

The cap for government loans for master’s programmes is now up to £12,167. To study a masters in the UK, it can cost between £4,000 and £22,000 with elite universities such as Durham requiring fees around £11,750, and Oxford, costing as much as £15,840.

Palatinate relayed these statistics to Prof. Major, asking what he thought about the inequality of opportunity between working-class and higher class students when it comes to master’s degrees: “Well clearly the system is broken at the moment […] we have a system where you cannot even get a loan to cover the full costs of many master’s degrees, that cannot be right, that is just contravening the basic rules of fairness.”

“We have a system where you cannot even get a loan to cover the full costs of many master’s degrees, that cannot be right, that is just contravening the basic rules of fairness”

professor lee elliot major

He continued to say that the unaffordability of master’s degrees worries him because research has shown how gaining a master’s degree can be a “really big factor” in terms of future earnings and careers. “So essentially we’re cutting off that opportunity for young people just because they happen to come from backgrounds [that] aren’t very privileged.”

He also expressed his worry for the “future pipeline of things like academics.” He spoke about how if we don’t have people from all backgrounds doing PhDs, for example, it means our future professors are all going to come from “very privileged backgrounds.”

“These things are really important, so I do think we need an urgent review of funding in that area.”

In concluding the interview, he mentioned his book ‘Equity in Education’ in which he argues for a new approach. Prof. Major told Palatinate that he thinks universities are stuck in “deficit mode,” when we should be taking a “capacity approach.” We should “welcome people from all backgrounds, into prestigious universities like Durham, like Exeter, and allow them to be who they are and flourish for who they are… rather than being like me, someone who became as I say, a middle-class clone.”

He continued, “I’m not arguing that we completely throw out all the things that university education is about, but I think a lot of what university life is about is really essentially a middle-class invention, […] and we need to challenge some of those things.”


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