Working-class graduates ‘locked out’ of top careers

Applications from Russell Group graduates – who are more likely to be from wealthy backgrounds – have a better chance of success, commission says

June 15, 2015

Bright working-class applicants are “systematically locked out” of top jobs because employers focus their recruitment efforts on elite universities, a report says.

A study published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on 15 June says that between 40 and 50 per cent of applicants to leading accountancy firms had attended one of the 24 research-intensive universities which form the Russell Group.

The report says that this is the result of recruitment strategies, including campus visits and targeted advertising, which serve to hamper social mobility. The proportion of young full-time undergraduate entrants to Russell Group universities who were from less advantaged backgrounds stood at 19 per cent in 2011-12, compared with 33 per cent across all UK universities in 2013-14, according to the report.

Data provided to the researchers indicates that Russell Group applicants go on to receive between 60 and 70 per cent of all job offers from these leading accountancy firms, demonstrating that their applications have a greater chance of success than those submitted by other graduates.

The report says that this will partly reflect the strong academic credentials of these applicants, but may also be the result of coaching and advice sessions on the application and interview process offered at top universities by these companies. Current professionals and recruitment specialists may also talent-spot suitable students, resulting in their applications being flagged for special attention.

In addition, the report says that leading firms’ campus visits may reinforce an “image of exclusivity”, so that students from poorer backgrounds may feel that they will not fit in, or that their academic credentials may not be acceptable.

The report, A Qualitative Evaluation of Non-educational Barriers to the Elite Professions, says that the impact of recruitment strategies employed by accounting and law farms is compounded by the deployment of a specific notion of “talent” which may further advantage candidates from middle-class backgrounds. More affluent applicants may present a more “polished” and confident performance, and possess stronger communication skills, it adds.

In summary, the report says that students at Russell Group universities are “on average more likely to have enjoyed educational and economic advantages compared to many students educated elsewhere”.

“These advantages are further reinforced in the recruitment and selection process,” the report says. “In contrast, students educated elsewhere and/or who are from less privileged backgrounds may be disadvantaged because their application is not actively invited by elite firms and if they do apply, they do not have similar access to coaching and support which might aid their success.”

A parallel exercise conducted by the commission in Scotland found that financial services firms concentrated their recruitment efforts on four high-ranking institutions in the country’s central belt: the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde, plus Heriot-Watt University.

Some of the institutions, especially Edinburgh, are less likely to attract applicants from poorer backgrounds or areas with traditionally low participation rates, the report says.

For elite investment banking jobs, many companies only consider applicants from Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews, it adds.

Alan Milburn, the commission’s chair and former Labour member of Cabinet, said that young people from working-class backgrounds were being “systematically locked out of top jobs”. Employers were “denying themselves talent, stymieing young people’s social mobility and fuelling the social divide that bedevils Britain”, he added.

Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, said that many universities already worked closely with employers to ensure that students were well prepared for their careers, and that some employers were also changing their recruitment practices.

But the report reveals that many disadvantaged students still “meet a double-glazed glass ceiling when they are seeking to enter the graduate job market”, Professor Ebdon added.

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Reader's comments (1)

Gradually improving State school performance across the range is probably the most that can be expected and essential. Nevertheless the Independent sector will likely similarly continue raising its game as well to ensure dominant access to the most prestigious opportunities. i.e. a very tough problem to crack. Also important will be the recent changes to vocational education in particular, notably the Trailblazer Apprenticeship scheme, Tech and General Vocational 'A' levels and rigorous performance monitoring of standards.