Equity can trip us up

September 13, 2002

Initiatives to give students a career boost may be failing those most in need, argues John Brennan

If you were born on the wrong side of the tracks and you haven't become a professional footballer or a pop singer, the best route to improving your economic prospects is almost certainly to get into higher education.

Research shows that graduates are advantaged in the labour market, but our analysis of more than 3,000 graduates in the first four years after leaving university underlines that some are more advantaged than others. Subject choice, the institution attended and the class of degree attained can all enhance job prospects, as can students' social and educational backgrounds. Even when students attend the same university, do the same course and get the same degree, the more socially fortunate are likely to earn more, are less likely to be unemployed and are less likely to find themselves in a non-graduate job.

There are a number of things that higher education institutions can do, and are increasingly doing, to improve the employability of their graduates. These include promoting work placement during higher education, extracurricular activities and studying or working abroad, advising on job-search strategies and running mentoring schemes.

Unfortunately, those students who are already disadvantaged by their backgrounds and educational experiences can be further disadvantaged by virtue of being less likely to avail themselves of the supports and services available to enhance employability.

There are several reasons for this. One is simply ignorance of the existence and value of these facilities and of the labour market they will face on graduation. But even where there is awareness, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may lack the opportunity to exploit such initiatives. They are more likely to have to work during term, and they work longer hours than middle-class students. They simply do not have much time to spare for additional activities. They may not even have the time to visit their institution's careers service.

In an era of mass higher education, equity issues over access are likely to receive public attention and to be extended to equity issues during and at the point of exit from higher education.

Many universities are aware of the problems and are willing to address them. But it may be unrealistic to target support services at those most in need of them. Institutions find it difficult - practically and ethically - to discriminate intentionally between students on social or ethnic grounds. (Unintentionally, they probably do it all the time.) But they can do things to raise the awareness of employability factors among all their students and thus reduce the information/awareness advantage enjoyed by middle-class students.

They may also be able to turn some disadvantages into advantages, for example by recognising and giving credit for some of the learning that occurs outside college - whether in term-time jobs or voluntary/domestic activities. They should at least be alert to the danger that they may unintentionally discriminate against some of their students, may equip them less well for the future than other students and may sap their confidence rather than boost it.

Ensuring that extending opportunities in education also extends opportunities in employment requires, above all, attention to basics - that students are enrolled on courses that are suited to their interests and their aspirations, that they complete those courses, that they obtain the best class of degree they are capable of. For the individual, higher education is the most important route towards economic improvement. It will certainly not remove all the inequalities facing individuals, but it can try to give them a decent shot at overcoming them.

John Brennan is professor of higher education research at the Open University's Centre for Higher Education Research and Information. "Access to what? How to convert educational opportunity into employment opportunity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds" is a project supported by the higher education funding councils, Universities UK, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Council for Industry and Higher Education, the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and the Open University.

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