ESRC Future Leaders - Geographical Mobility of UK Higher Education Students

Project: Research council

Project Details


The creation of a fairer society through social mobility is high on the political agenda in the UK. It is often assumed that widening participation in higher education (HE), through various policies and initiatives, will equate to a fairer and more socially mobile society. Yet, while more disadvantaged groups are now progressing to HE, social mobility remains weak, suggesting that this is an over-simplified picture of the ways in which social inequalities are (re)produced in countries like the UK. The geographical (im)mobility of young people at this key transition point is rarely alluded to here, in terms of its significance in shaping social (im)mobility. In spatially diverse countries like the UK, access to universities, key labour markets, social networks, and other valuable resources often necessitate some degree of geographical mobility. In addressing social inequalities in wider society, it is therefore crucial to understand the nature of student flows across diverse parts of the UK, including the rationales different young people have for their (im)mobility to and from different places. There is already some evidence to suggest that the costs of HE study can deter the most disadvantaged young people from moving away for their studies, but what other place-based factors, including the cultural, social, and economic characteristics of localities might be important in shaping student (im)mobility? This interdisciplinary project will undertake an innovative and far-reaching programme of policy relevant research addressing the mobility patterns of UK HE students. The value of this research has been endorsed by all four UK HE Funding Councils, the UK Government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (Chaired by Rt. Hon. Alan Milburn), The Sutton Trust, and Universities UK. These organisations are members of the project stakeholder group and will be closely involved in the research and dissemination programme, ensuring that the research addresses areas of policy relevance and reaches a wide audience. This novel research will uncover, for the first time, the nature of student flows within and across the four countries of the UK, together with rich and in-depth understandings about how they are shaped. Taking into account the socially, economically, politically and culturally diverse nature of UK society, the project will seek to understand the placed nature of educational decision making in particular. This unique work is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing on, and contributing to, the academic disciplines of geography, education, and sociology. The research is mixed methods and organised around two distinct but sequential phases, which include large scale quantitative analysis of UK-wide student records data (phase 1) that will frame the collection of new qualitative data (phase 2). Phase 1 will involve advanced spatial analysis to examine student flows at country, region, and locality levels, producing innovative graphics displaying these spatial movements in visual form. This analysis will explore patterns and relationships between student movements and social as well as spatial characteristics. In the second phase, qualitative research will take place in 10 purposefully selected case study schools across the UK, selected on the basis of criteria developed from the quantitative analysis. To explore the sorts of factors shaping young people's mobility patterns, data collection will involve interviews with young people, two members of their social network, as well as observation of their school contexts. These rich qualitative data will dig beneath the surface of the quantitative patterns, capturing how young people's subjective experiences of space and their own geographical imaginaries impact on their geographic (im)mobility. It will explore how these relationships to place and mobility intentions are constructed and influenced by their individual biographies, social network and school.
Effective start/end date1/04/1630/09/20


  • Economic and Social Research Council

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities


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