Social class still counts after students reach 21

August 15, 2003

Why does Labour focus its access efforts on 18-year-olds when postgrad inequality is rife? asks Paul Wakeling

We are not being told the whole story in the great widening participation debate. Welcome though it is, New Labour's emphasis on "fair access" focuses on full-time undergraduate study by 18-year-olds. Where are the postgraduates? There is little interest in Whitehall in fair access to postgraduate study.

Postgraduate study is often seen as a minority pursuit - and surely widening access to first degrees naturally opens the way to postgraduate study for more students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Postgraduate study is no longer a fringe activity: the number of postgraduates has increased tenfold over the past 30 years.

Postgraduates today outnumber the total student body of 30 years ago - they are no longer a tiny elite.

The UK Graduate Careers Survey shows that more new graduates plan to take further study than to progress to full-time employment. And there are calls for Oxford University to shift its emphasis towards postgraduate students to reflect the practice of Ivy League competitors.

As has long been the case stateside, going to "graduate school" is a trusted method of moving from a first degree in a non-vocational subject to a profession (for example, in law). In a mass-participation system, it also helps to distinguish oneself from the glut of graduates. Evidence on the financial benefit of a postgraduate qualification is equivocal, with some studies showing positive returns and others the reverse. MBAs usually give positive financial outcomes, but in many cases a PhD shows a negative effect on earning power in comparison with similarly qualified peers.

But although we all know under-employed PhDs and horror stories abound, the fact remains that the doctorate, like other postgraduate qualifications, serves as the passport to a particular profession. Academia may not provide quite the financial rewards and status it once did, but university lecturers remained in the top social class for the 2001 census, in contrast to the fortunes of schoolteachers.

That there is relative advantage in obtaining a postgraduate qualification seems highly likely, although better evidence is needed. What is certain is that access to postgraduate study is not simply meritorious. Education secretary Charles Clarke was right in one respect when he spoke of higher education for its own sake as a luxury. Three years or more devoted to the delivery of a highly esoteric doctoral thesis is a big commitment for anyone. But it is a massive risk for someone from a disadvantaged background who has accumulated substantial undergraduate debt and who may already have faced familial and peer pressure to start earning immediately.

The recent increase in stipends by the research councils should go some way towards reducing the financial burden of full-time postgraduate study, but we have no data on their distribution by socioeconomic background. On taught postgraduate courses, studentships are few and far between and the "free market" reigns. Fees are typically triple undergraduate levels and there is no means test. A 2:2 and rich parents leads to postgraduate study much more readily than a first and a modest background.

What hard evidence is there for social inequality in access to postgraduate degrees? Amazingly little it seems. I know of no UK study on this topic in the past 25 years, which is incredible given the focus on widening participation. I researched the link between social class and progression to postgraduate study immediately following the first degree. Centrally collected data are patchy, but where available suggest that the undergraduate pattern of class inequality continues at postgraduate level.

Among those with first-class honours, the disparity is stronger, suggesting that the cause of inequality cannot be attributed to differential achievement. There is an institutional effect, too. Pre-1992 university graduates are more likely to take a PhD regardless of social class. Old universities as a whole recruit a higher proportion of those from the top three social classes and hence the opportunity to do postgraduate work may be foreclosed at an earlier date.

This relationship between social class, institution and postgraduate study augurs ill for access if the mooted policy of restricting PhD awarding powers and research funding to the research elite is implemented. First we must improve the evidence base. Without a better understanding, we risk deferring inequality of opportunity as postgraduate qualifications gain importance, controlling entry to sought-after positions. We also risk an academic profession recruited from a narrow social base, lacking in the diversity it needs to flourish.

Paul Wakeling is assistant registrar at the University of York. He writes in a personal capacity.

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