Checking privilege in the graduate labour market – can universities make a difference?

Debbie McVitty wonders whether universities have yet reached the limits of their influence on diversifying access to graduate-level employment.

Privilege still pays in the labour market. Across all kinds of top jobs, from the elite professions of medicine, law, architecture and accountancy, to the creative industries of media and arts, to public sector managers, and journalists, people from a professional or managerial class origin are over-represented.

In The Class Ceiling: why it pays to be privileged (2020) Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison interrogate Labour Force Survey data on labour force participation and socio-economic background, and draw on interviews with individuals working in four elite occupations – media, acting, architecture and accountancy – to work out some of the reasons why privilege tends to reproduce itself.

Access to higher education is certainly one part of the story – it’s hard to break into the most prestigious jobs without having a university degree, which is why there has been so much historic emphasis on widening participation in universities. Type of university attended and attainment also have a role to play. But, as Friedman and Laurison point out, these only account for part of the story.

Within every degree class, at both highly prestigious and other kinds of universities, there is still a class gradient in who gets top jobs. For example, while nearly two-thirds (64%) of privileged-origin respondents who achieved first class degrees from Russell Group universities progress to a top job, less than half (45%) of those from working class origins with the exact same achievements do so…among Russell Group universities, those from privileged backgrounds who only got a lower second class degree are still more likely to enter a top occupation than those from working class backgrounds who come out of university with a first.

In a recent HEPI paper proposing that universities be ranked by their success in facilitating social mobility Dave Phoenix, vice chancellor of London South Bank University, observes that social mobility cannot be reduced to the access of relatively few individuals into “top” universities and thence into elite careers.

Universities – like London South Bank – that do the heavy lifting on widening access to higher education, can and do enable individuals to improve their circumstances and both kinds of impact are necessary and valuable. By the same token, all kinds of universities need to consider what more they can do to address the differential access of graduates to careers.

Recognising that applicants come to university with a range of life experiences that create a context in which their academic achievement can be judged as an indicator of their potential, universities are currently deliberating how to regularise use of contextual data in university admissions.

Now the Office for Students’ focus on graduate outcomes – especially graduate level employment – is suggesting that universities should be held responsible for taking steps to mitigate disadvantage at the other end as well.

On the one hand, understanding the scale of confounding variables that influence access to the graduate labour market makes a mockery of the notion that graduate level employment is a meaningful indicator of course quality. Universities cannot be held solely responsible for addressing long standing and complex socio-economic inequalities.

On the other, from the perspective of progressive social values, we do care about equity of student outcomes and we want universities to be the most effective engines of social mobility they can be. And this shift to outcomes offers the opportunity to look again at how that transition is supported and how universities prepare graduates to navigate their career, not merely graduate employment.

Social capitalism

Much employability talk is about skills and equipping graduates for the workplace. That’s fine up to a point but it doesn’t address the social capital problem that many – even the majority – of jobs are acquired through informal networks. Even if you’re recruited through a formal graduate scheme, once you’re in a job the things that help you get on and progress may be only tangentially related to performance.

Friedman and Laurison expose the extent to which social capital plays a role in structuring professional success. They point to some common themes: the “bank of mum and dad” that can offer a cushion as people try to break into industries that rely on short term and low paid work at entry level (especially where work is located in expensive cities); and the role of senior sponsors and mentors within organisations in encouraging early talent, which can often be based largely in cultural affinity, meaning that in the absence of formal structures for sponsorship senior staff from a privileged background gravitate towards sponsoring people who share their tastes, interests and lifestyles.

They also explore narratives about “fit” in different industries, and how these ideas that circulate within organisations about who is a “good team player” or “partner material”, or “one to watch” can be less about your performance and instead filtered through a social class lens:

Mastering behavioural codes is pivotal to ‘getting on’ in all the professions we examined. It is a key way of signalling that you are the ‘right type’ of person to get ahead, that you fit, and it is duly rewarded by senior decision-makers. Importantly, however, we find that these codes are often only tangentially related to the work that goes on in elite jobs and are not particularly credible measures of ability, performance or intelligence. Instead, we argue, they frequently represent metaphorical ‘glass slippers’, rendering workplaces a natural fit for some and uncomfortable for others. In particular, they often act as cultural barriers for those from working-class backgrounds, who often struggle to fit, or adapt, to these cultures of work.

This is complex in a few different ways. Friedman and Laurison show how class intersects with other characteristics such as gender, disability, and ethnicity to create even more complicated patterns of (dis)advantage. And different industries and professions have different hidden codes and cultures, so understanding how they work requires a good working knowledge of the industry – an insider level of knowledge.

We should also be wary of solutions that depend on the deficit model of working class students mastering these hidden codes and performing them as a condition of accessing elite or professional employment. Encouraging organisations that are enthusiastic about employees bringing their “whole selves” to work to recognise the extent to which the tacitly endorsed “self” is a middle-class self must be part of the picture – alongside a degree of pragmatism about equipping students to navigate this territory in the interim.

Third, academia is itself an elite profession with over half of academics coming from a professional and managerial background, according to Friedman and Laurison’s Labour Force Survey data analysis. It also has many of the hallmarks of other elite professions – barriers to entry for those without a financial cushion, elaborate cultural codes of behaviour, and significant benefits to be conferred from senior sponsorship. So universities may need to scrutinise their own cultural blind spots in thinking through how best to intervene.

In their conclusion Friedman and Laurison’s recommendations for breaking the class ceiling focus – quite rightly – on employers. But their insights on how economic, social and cultural capital structure career success have important resonance for universities, too.

Address barriers to engagement at subject level

Access and participation plans increasingly engage with issues of under-representation at subject level, which is encouraging – but there is still a great deal of interrogation required of the ways that the structures and cultures of particular subjects such as law and medicine filter access to those professions. Meanwhile, less competitive subjects may be doing the heavy lifting on delivering on the institution’s widening participation performance indicators.

Tackling this could include addressing a lack of flexibility in delivery and assessment, hidden course costs, expectations of mobility that generate additional costs (for example to take up placements or work experience), a highly competitive atmosphere, and infusion of the cultures of the profession with all their assumptions about what a high-performing professional looks like.

Inclusive extra-curricular activities

Extra-curricular activities offer opportunities for students to build social networks with other students and develop relevant professional skills, but they are also spaces that may themselves have barriers to entry and participation associated with economic and cultural capital.

Recent Sutton Trust research notes participation gaps between working class and better-off students in extracurricular activities (52 per cent versus 64 per cent), work experience placements (36 per cent versus 46 per cent) and study abroad (9 per cent versus 13 per cent).

Deeper understanding of student micro-cultures, especially by students’ unions, could help to break down some of the barriers here, as well as work to overcome financial barriers to participation in extracurricular activities.

Active and reflective network development

The university experience offers the unique possibility of building entirely new networks with different kinds of people from different kinds of worlds. But if the assumption is that this all happens organically then the impact of students arriving at university with different levels of pre-existing social capital, which they can then mobilise during and after their time at university, will remain invisible.

A more active approach could involve making the processes of network-building visible, and accessible, fostering active network creation through student ambassador and alumni mentoring schemes, students’ union activity and employer networking events, and using custom built technology to democratise access to prospective employers and alumni.

Students could be supported to reflect not only on their skills, and how employable they are on paper, but on the networks and relationships they have and the access to different kinds of perspectives and experiences their network affords them.

Access to work experience

The value of placements in supporting graduate employability is well understood, and some universities are working to guarantee every student a work placement as part of their course.

Work-shadowing opportunities, micro-placements and remote placements could help to break down initial barriers to participation in placements, so that students are more likely to be able to work them around existing commitments. There may also be opportunities for universities in big cities to offer short term, affordable accommodation to students and graduates undertaking internships and placements.

On a grander scale universities could look to USA-style work study programmes for less advantaged students to enable them to supplement their income with work that is more likely to develop them professionally than low-paid or casual work, provided either in the university itself, or in the local community.

Influence and advocacy

While universities may have little direct influence over employers, there is a lot that can be done to exercise soft power.

Universities may be able to mobilise alumni connections or employer partnerships to open up conversations reflecting on the patterns of access and progression in particular companies and industries, offering training to managers and those with responsibility for placement students to reflect on these and develop students’ agency in navigating them, indirectly influencing company cultures through encouraging such reflection.

Universities can also play a greater role in the public conversation – speaking out against practices like unpaid internships, and contributing to the evidence base on the experience of working class students and graduates in the labour market, particularly at the early talent stage.

Very little of any of this is about course quality, of course. But perhaps the conversation about quality and graduate outcomes is the spur that is needed for universities to up the ante on diversifying access to graduate level employment.

This article is published in association with Handshake UK. Join Wonkhe and Handshake on Tuesday 16 March for our Wonkhe @ Home event Nice work if you can get it: diversity, social capital and graduate-level employment. 

3 responses to “Checking privilege in the graduate labour market – can universities make a difference?

  1. This is a very good piece. Although a little too reliant on Friedman and & Laurison’s excellent work, to make the case, look elsewhere and the evidence remans the same.Your final paragraph sums it up nicely in my view, despite the odds, the focus on Graduate Outcomes is a welcome spur for the sector to reconsider its role in shaping the national employment agenda.

  2. Fascinating stuff – going forward these issues need to be addressed in a more conscious way by both work and academic organisations to create more inclusive cultures.

  3. I found this really interesting and helpful, thank you – I’ve ordered the book!

    There are so many different levels to the challenges individual graduates face when transitioning from learning to earning. It’s a big task to create a menu of support that feels both sufficiently broad to be applicable across different subjects and sectors, whilst also being flexible around individual graduate circumstances and interests.

    The Fifteen Cathedrals Group universities Careers Teams recently worked together to explore issues some of our 2020 graduates were facing when searching for and starting work. In many cases the challenges were very practical – digital access in particular, and access to transport to widen the scope of their job hunt (laptops and driving lessons were the most common ‘ask’). In other cases the challenges were personal – mental health, circumstances at home, and caring responsibilities for example.

    So even before addressing questions of workplace culture and behaviour – which are clearly massive factors – it feels important to recognise what a difference some of the ‘basics’ can make for graduates, often (though not exclusively) those from WP backgrounds. The pandemic has almost certainly exacerbated some of these challenges, so universities may need to think about how far they could/should go to help with them on a case-by-case basis.

    When we asked graduates what would help, long before they were thinking about social capital, many were thinking about relatively small investments that would make a ‘game changing’ difference to their ability to seek out and secure work. As the focus on graduate outcomes intensifies, and out of our sense of care and responsibility, universities may need to think about those things more too, as part of a wider package of alumni support.

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