What does class pay gap day tell us about universities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

New research from the Department for Opportunities leaves something of a hole in rhetoric around equality in regulation.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

If you’ve been following the way the Office for Students has been developing its approach to regulating based on student outcomes, you’ll be familiar with language like this (from an OfS press release):

Students studying on courses below the thresholds are often from groups underrepresented in higher education and the OfS’s proposals are designed to ensure that providers must support the students they recruit to achieve positive outcomes, regardless of their background

And in the wider debate about “poor quality courses”, we’ve heard several interventions like this, from Michelle Donelan, writing for Conservative Home:

Access shouldn’t be about just getting someone in the door, but on to a course that they complete and that is rigorous enough to give them the skills they need in succeed in life

It’s a wilful perversion of some of the wilder claims that universities themselves have made – that undergraduate study is an engine for social mobility whatever your background.

Graduate salaries do not play a part in OfS regulation, but they do offer an indication of success in professional level jobs. What the Department for Opportunity think tank did over the weekend was to examine the salaries of those in professional and managerial roles – finding that people from a working class backgrounds are paid some £6,000 less for doing the same jobs.

Similar figures show that women are paid nearly £10k less – people of Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean heritage are paid between £8k and £10k less.

Even if we look at a class pay gap for individual graduate jobs we see the same pattern. Working class doctors are paid around £3,640 less – working class academics are paid £5,807 less. Working class accountants are paid £6,126 less. Interestingly, scientists from working class backgrounds are paid £4,600 more.

There are a number of fundamental, structural issues at play here. Employers need to be taking a close look at their recruitment assumptions and the kind of skills they reward.

But it is very hard to blame the qualifications, or where they were obtained. Each of these jobs requires one – or more – higher education qualifications. They require a fixed set of skills and competencies linked to these qualifications. If graduates from less advantaged backgrounds are not doing as well here – despite passing the very high bar to entry – then it suggests that something else is going on.

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