The “old boy network” has long been blamed for giving those from certain institutions a leg-up in the labour market, but research lays bare the “recruitment courting ritual” of drinks, dinners and schmoozing that allows students at elite institutions to enter top firms – so long as they are the right “social or cultural fit”.
Researchers interviewed 20 final-year undergraduates studying either philosophy, politics and economics or history at Oxford, and another 20 taking master’s degrees in political administration at Sciences Po.
Their responses show that networks and connections “play a very important role in finding employment”, according to a paper that was expected to be delivered at the British Sociological Association’s Work, Employment and Society Conference, held from 3 to 5 September at the University of Warwick.
It found that students from both universities realise that certain finance, consulting and law firms only target recruitment activity at a limited number of institutions.
The students interviewed say that while this is partly because the firms believe they are targeting the most able students, it also means that their recruits possess a “social or cultural fit in order to work successfully” within the organisations.
“Firms organise social events where companies and students ‘meet’ each other. These meetings breed familiarity to both parties, through interaction as well as homogeneity leading to a sort of recruitment courting ritual,” says the paper, The Role of Networks and Connections in Educational Elites’ Labour Market Entrance.
According to Tim, one of the interviewees from Oxford, firms put on “dinners, workshop days, drinks receptions, they email you once every two weeks, they try and build relationships with you…last week…I think that I paid [for] my own dinner once”.
These employers effectively “discriminate” against “non-elite” students, according to the paper.
In many cases, academics act as “informal gatekeepers of labour market connections” and put students in touch with useful alumni or companies.
The extent of the use of networks and connections “seems to compromise the idea that elite labour markets use graduates from elite educational institutions solely because of their superior human capital (which would yield higher productivity)”, the paper concludes.
But some students from elite institutions are unable to capitalise despite the networks.
The research recounts the story of Andrew, an Oxford student from a lower middle-class background who wants to pursue a career in the media.
Despite understanding the importance of the “right internships” and moving in the “right circles”, he could not afford to live in London while taking unpaid work experience.
“I don’t think that I have made [the] sort of…networks that will help me in my career,” he laments.
The paper was authored by Gerbrand Tholen, a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford, Phillip Brown and Sally Power, both professors from Cardiff University, and Annabelle Allouch, a graduate student at Sciences Po.