Employers should join universities in reaching out to disadvantaged communities

Barriers to social mobility in the UK start at home, grow in primary school, through secondary and higher education, and finally manifest themselves most clearly in employment.

Last month, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility and Sutton Trust published new data confirming this. Our education system and professions do not support people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be more socially mobile; they reinforce privilege.

The Class Ceiling report documents the challenges faced by people from disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing careers in leading professions. It shows that merely addressing the attainment gap between pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds alone isn’t enough to tackle our social mobility problem. University entrance, future employment, and earnings depend heavily on soft skills and a ‘cultural fit’. The impact of background is not just about the potential connections in a person’s network, but also a person’s way of viewing the world.

Elite prep schools, expensive boarding schools, the Russell Group, Oxbridge, leading consultancies, law firms – social mobility is partly a question of aspiration. Elitism can make the world feel small, but this is merely a reflection of the roll class still plays in our lives.

Outreach work has become a normal activity across university campuses, but it is still criticised as a student recruitment tool driven by staff rather than students. Yet outreach can bridge the gap of class divides, and not only in universities. If social divides and barriers to mobility afflict all stages of education and employment, so outreach should be employed at every such stage to combat them.

Not such a small world after all

I’ve always hated the phrase ‘it’s a small world’. I remember working abroad for an NGO and meeting a mid-50s couple who had taught one of my university peers during secondary school. “Small world!”, they exclaimed to me. I couldn’t help but question, is it? Is it noteworthy that I met another person who also went to a boarding school at a prestigious university with one of the lowest admission rates from state-funded schools?

On the other hand, I would have found it noteworthy had we all shared a mutual acquaintance called Jimmy, a school dropout, who drank in the Park Bar, Glasgow and was struggling to hold down his job and his responsibility to look after his ageing mother. I doubt, though, they know Jimmy. I doubt you do either. I don’t.

Our meeting place was perhaps the only strange thing, and yet I don’t think so. There’s something particularly privileged about both the act of charity work and the ability to do it abroad. Something about geography always seems to make the idea of cross border connectivity particularly mesmerising. Globalisation might be making the world smaller, but not necessarily more accessible or equitable. The world is still divided by class, values, and lifestyle, and faster flights will not change that. If anything, globalisation might disconnect us from the communities right in front of us.

That’s why I hate that phrase: ‘it’s a small world’. The world is big and complex and we rarely interact with it outside of our comfort zone. Instead, we stay safe in our area of privilege, it’s just that area has spread from a single city to the entire globe.

The way we say ‘small world’ tells us nearly as much about social mobility as the Sutton Trust can. Their report confirms findings from Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: that little progress has been made in recent years in decoupling educational attainment and earnings from your socio-economic background.

The results from the EU referendum further underline the problem: educational attainment has a huge impact on voting behaviour and cultural outlook. The educated are more likely to have more liberal views on issues like immigration, most likely because their small world is a global one, driven by cultural exchange.

Bridging the gap

More local cultural exchange should not be overlooked as a means to improving social mobility. Building connections across these coexisting small worlds is doubtlessly important. Downing Street and Nick Timothy appear to agree; you can see it in every green paper and consultation Theresa May’s government has so far published.

One of these green papers, on schools, looks at university outreach in the context of improving school attainment. Outreach in schools is often driven by student recruitment or access departments, aided by student involvement. This can lead to it appearing either a recruitment tool or a piece of PR. In bridging the gap, communities need to feel student’s interaction is genuine and not just a PR exercise.

That means encouraging students to set up run their own projects assisted by university staff, not asking them to make up numbers in outreach pre-designed to fulfil strategic objectives. Outreach could look beyond just engaging with schools, hopefully reaching young people who care for older relatives or juvenile offenders, among others. Acknowledging how aspirations impact beyond the classroom is necessary if a holistic approach to social mobility is to be institutionalised.

Employers must play their part

Funding for projects which reach beyond universities’ own strategic objectives could come from the professions their graduates will progress to. Employers already spend huge sums promoting their brand across recruitment fairs and university sports team jerseys, so big graduate employers could put their money towards outreach with communities who rarely provide the labour for their workforce.

It’s important that students are supported and allowed the freedom to manage outreach projects themselves. Doing so demonstrates the skills identified in Class Ceiling as making them attractive graduate hires, in a setting aimed at sharing those skills across the class divide. It’s a win-win.

We can’t hide from the evidence: a class divide does exist in the UK, and those who study and work in universities find themselves on the lucky side of it. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit our privilege, but we have to act on it too. Let’s be realistic, a year or two of engagement with disadvantaged communities whilst at university is hardly going to stick with graduates when they’re a home-owning parent. But sustained involvement throughout their career might make a real difference, for all parties involved.

The government’s schools’ Green Paper made the connection between school attainment and higher education attainment. The Sutton Trust report was it went one step further, tying in the leading professions. Like universities, employers should be encouraged to support and fund their employees taking a lead in outreach. Finding the time for social engagement shouldn’t be the reserve of partners or directors, it should be an appealing quality in staff across a successful company.

Students and graduates are the future leaders of those professions with high barriers to entry. As the Sutton Trust has shown, these worlds are just as exclusive as their universities. Policy and wonkery alone can’t create aspiration, that responsibility lies with us. For universities, employers, and their staff – we all need to check our privilege.

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