Students from deprived backgrounds struggle to find jobs, Alison Utley reports
Growing numbers of students from deprived backgrounds struggling to enter higher education are likely to find themselves facing another set of debilitating hurdles when they enter the jobs market, according to new research.
The study found that widening participation in higher education is just the start in improving life chances because working-class students find it more difficult to land graduate-level jobs, earn less when they do and are more likely not to find a job at all.
The study, a two-year project called Access To What? by the Open University's Centre for Higher Education Research, found this to be the case for poor students, older students, female students and ethnic students regardless of how good a degree was gained, the level of the qualifications they held upon starting a course and even which university they went to.
But the study does concede that the perceived status of the university attended can work against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Post-92 universities tend to be perceived as less prestigious than old universities and they tend to educate a greater proportion of students from less well-off backgrounds.
The government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England are keen to differentiate the sector further.
But the report says that greater social equity for students is likely to be achieved by reducing status differences between institutions rather than strengthening them.
According to John Brennan, the project leader, the research concludes that social factors such as class, ethnicity and gender undermine the employment benefits that some students gain from degree-level qualifications and experience.
"What we uncovered was a cycle of disadvantage," Dr Brennan said. "Widening participation offers individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds probably their best available escape route from these backgrounds towards something better.
"But widening participation does not of itself contribute towards the creation of a fairer society. This requires not only equal opportunities to get into higher education but equal opportunities within higher education for students to make the most of the experience."
Dr Brennan added: "Undoubtedly, employment prospects for some graduates would be improved by studying a different subject at a different institution.
"But, whether or not such a course of action is a realistic option, there are other less dramatic factors that can also have a positive effect upon employment outcomes."
One of the key problems the project identified was a lack of connection between policies on widening participation and policies on enhancing employability. The two issues have been treated separately.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and chair of the project steering group, said that most of the recent policy focus had been on the need to widen the social composition of higher education, ensuring that more young people from the most deprived sections of society achieve entry.
But he said that thinking and policy development had moved on and the student experience at university was regarded as a matter of perhaps equal importance.
Mr Bekhradnia said: "This important study breaks new ground by considering the experience of students as they leave university.
"Disturbingly, it finds that earlier disadvantage is not entirely removed and that students from the most deprived backgrounds tend to go on to jobs with less prestige and lower pay than their peers."
He said there was doubt about the usefulness of "employability" skills training for students. And it was particularly disturbing, he said, to learn that where universities provided job-seeking assistance to students, it was generally the least deprived students who took advantage of it.
The first phase of the OU project was a re-analysis of a large data set of UK graduates collected four years after their graduation. The sample of 4,300 graduates was drawn from UK universities.
The research found that both male and female graduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds received lower average salaries - £1,500 less a year in the case of men and £1,000 a year less for women. They were also less likely to expect salary increases.
The research controlled for the effects of institution, subject, entry qualifications and degree results, and the researchers found a number of worrying disadvantages that could be attributed directly to the influence of the graduate's age or background (see box left).
- For male graduates, there was a nearly 10 per cent difference in income depending on whether both parents were graduates or had left school at the minimum leaving age
- First-generation female graduates were only half as likely to feel their degree was necessary for their jobs as graduates with graduate parents
- Graduates with Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian origins were more likely to be jobless for at least six months after graduating, as were those from black African, black Caribbean and other black backgrounds
- Black female graduates were less satisfied with their jobs than other female graduates
- People entering higher education after the age of 25 were disadvantaged by lack of traditional entry qualifications but were advantaged by their higher-than-average degree qualifications
- Graduates who entered higher education aged 21 to 24 seemed to be doing well in the labour market
'Graduating at 38 is a big drawback in finding a job'
Greg Bremner left school with four O levels and then worked as a cabbie in Glasgow.
After a spell as a long-distance lorry driver, he decided to go back to education. He did an access course followed by an economics degree at Strathclyde University, achieving a 2:1. He is working as a transport manager but is looking for a new position.
"Going to university was a very big decision. My dad had worked in a shop and I knew I wanted to get further in a career but realised I needed qualifications," Bremner said.
"Five years study changed everything for me, but I knew graduating at 38 was a big drawback when it came to finding a job."
He said people like him are regarded as too old or too experienced for graduate recruitment and psychometric testing disadvantages older people.
"They just don't perform as well," he said. "And when the selection boards have hundreds of graduates to choose from, the standard student straight out of university is what they are going to opt for because they are the safe bet."