Class Divide

Matilda Gosling

14 January 2013

State school students are struggling to find graduate jobs, despite doing better at university than students educated privately. This is the headline from a report written by Bristol University and commissioned by UpReach, a new charity which aims to get better representation of students from less privileged backgrounds into professional occupations. The report finds that 58% of state educated graduates find a professional job, compared with 74% of privately educated graduates. Starting salaries for students with a 2:1 are £2,000 less if they were state educated; this rises to £3,000 less for students with a first class degree.

UpReach's assessment of the issue points to a lack of some of the softer skills sought by employers among the state school educated, such as problem solving and team skills; less knowledge about the available options; poorer networks; and a lack of professional experience. The organisation cites research which demonstrates that undergraduates from less privileged backgrounds are unlikely to have the same level of or access to these factors as those from wealthier backgrounds. Selection requirements naturally vary by job, and, according to a review by SKOPE, other important areas may include appearance, voice and accent; personal attributes, behaviours and characteristics; motivation; and potential.

Perhaps as a nod to its funders, which constitute some of the city’s major professional employers, or perhaps because it hasn’t yet considered this angle, UpReach steers clear of some of the less palatable reasons for a lack of state school success in this area. The United Kingdom still falls apart along class fault lines and many a person, even with the best of intentions, may be swayed by a smart accent. To put it bluntly, employers like a bit of posh, with one study finding that ‘candidates with a name, social type and interests associated with the social elite are more likely to receive a reply to their application than candidates with the equivalent non-elite characteristics’. As the SKOPE paper points out, people also have a tendency to recruit in their own image, leading to unintended institutional bias among many of the professions in which private schools have dominated.  

Where does this leave the legions of smart, state school educated graduates who are not only up against the well networked skills of their more privileged counterparts, but are also facing the toughest graduate job market experienced by any of their historical contemporaries in (at least) the last 20 years? In a bit of a hole, clearly. Despite recent campaigns calling for interns to be paid, many graduates are still doing professional internships for free - and those who can afford to do so are generally those who have access to the Bank of Mum and Dad.

It is, obviously, not just class which affects individuals’ ability to find graduate employment. Gender, age, ethnicity and disability all play a role, leading to an argument among some that the discourse of employability - which promotes individual responsibility and ignores social inequalities - needs review. It is likely, however, that the impact of such discourses just skim the surface of entrenched, and often unacknowledged, prejudice within our society. When power is in the hands of certain groups, whether it is political power or the power to make recruitment decisions, those groups tend to benefit disproportionately from the decisions made. Vanity is a controlling beast, and we all like to see a little piece of our own image reflected back at us.

© The Research Base 2017