Department of Education

Geographies of Higher Education: Spatial and social mobilities

This project will shed new light on the geographical limits to social mobility, through the lens of young people’s university choices in the UK.

A blue square with the words ESRC Economic & Social Research Council written in white text ontop.

Project budget

£280,029 (ESRC Future Research Leader)

The creation of a fairer society through social mobility is high on the political agenda in the UK. Who gets into university, and who goes to the most prestigious universities, is seen as critical to addressing intergenerational inequalities. Yet, despite some progress in widening access to Higher Education (HE), social mobility remains weak, suggesting a more complex picture about the ways in which social inequalities are reproduced in countries like the UK.

A new geographical perspective

This project brings geography, and specifically spatial (im)mobility, into the debate about social (im)mobility.

It will provide detailed accounts of spatial and placed dimensions of HE decision making.

The project will investigate:

  • What social, cultural, or economic importance do particular localities hold for different groups?
  • How are these patterns implicated in social mobility?
  • What role does place have on the choices of young people who are socially and educationally similar but located in geographically diverse areas?
  • In what ways might econoically, socially, culturally or politically distinct places act as pull or push factors for different social groups?

Outputs from the project will include two policy briefs, articles in high-impact journals across the disciplines of education, human geography and sociology as well as the publication of findings in the media and blogs (including The Conversation).

Mixed method approach

An innovative mixed methods approach will be used. The study will conduct a large scale mapping of young people’s spatial movements alongside intense qualitative research across 10 UK locations.

Project team

Academic collaborators

Stakeholder group

Related outputs

Diverse places of Learning? Home neighbourhood ethnic diversity and the ethnic composition of universities. University of Bath: Institute for Policy Research. Also see Appendix of Tables and Subject Diversity scores associated with the Diverse Places of Learning policy brief. The tables show degree of diversity across university subjects as well as individual universities themselves

Donnelly, M. and Evans, C., 2015. Forthcoming. Framing the geographies of higher education participation: schools, place and national identity. British Educational Research Journal, 42 (1), pp. 74-92, doi: 10.1002/berj.3196.

Research article in the BERA Blog, Framing the geographies of higher education participation: schools, place and national identity, published 8 September 2015.

Donnelly, M., 2015. Progressing to university:hidden messages at two state schools. British Educational Research Journal, 41 (1), pp. 85-101.

Donnelly, M., 2014. The Road to Oxbridge:Schools and Elite University Choices. British Journal of Educational Studies, 62 (1), pp. 57-72.


Dr Michael Donnelly: