Social Mobility? Yes, but we’re only half way there

After attending one of the UK’s top-ranked universities, one can’t help but be drawn into the conversation surrounding social mobility. Oxbridge, historically, has a history of awarding a disproportionate amount of places to students from private schools, and in particular a large number to a select group of very elite institutions. There are two (probably more) possible reasons why this happens.

The first is simply that a greater number of the highest-achieving and m0st-talented candidates attend private schools and therefore the intake is merely reflecting this. This, in itself, could be due to a number of factors. Presumably the parents of private school children have done well for themselves, achieving high-paid and powerful positions, and therefore they are merely passing on this success to their children. Or perhaps the attention pupils receive at private schools is more conducive to unlocking a child’s full potential.

The second possibility, which is gathering more steam, is that the whole application system is skewed in favour of those who have money and a top private school brand behind them. It is widely regarded that students at private schools gain more tuition for the Oxbridge interviews, their schools have good relationships with certain colleges and they can afford private tutoring or training as well. In contrast, state school pupils are worse prepared, advised by people without experience in this area and more daunted by the whole process. Obviously these are generalisations and exceptions do apply, but this is the gist of the argument I witnessed at university.

My point is that there has been a lot more attention on the social mobility of university places and, as Oxbridge places are increasingly going to state school pupils from a greater diversity of backgrounds, it appears progress is being made. This is fantastic news and long may it continue. The battle, however, is only half won.

I believe that a significant obstacle to social mobility remains, this time in the form of what happens when students graduate from university and begin looking for work. The difficulty of securing a graduate job has been well-documented and so has the need for some people to complete unpaid internships (work for free) before they can nab a permanent position. However, the chance of someone obtaining a graduate job, or fulfilling an unpaid internship, are far greater for those inside or close to London. Despite George Osborne’s best efforts, the UK economy remains overwhelmingly London-centric and so does the graduate job market. This is where our attempts at social mobility are unravelling.

Achieving a first graduate position can often rely heavily on previous unpaid experience or accepting a lower salary in the hope of later progression but these are terms which are much harder to meet for graduates outside of London. Yes, you could argue that if that is the only way  then one should bite the bullet, borrow some money, move to London and begin from there but the London housing market is daunting and it takes a great act of bravery to relocate without any sort of job security. As a result, what is happening is that talented and hungry graduates are struggling to get on the employment ladder because, through no fault of their own, they are stuck out in the four corners of Britain.

But what about graduate schemes, I hear you cry. Well, yes, I’m all for them but they are tough to get on to and applications often close early in third year, leaving little time to think about one’s future career (for the indecisive, such as myself). Moreover, the chances of achieving a place on such a scheme are greatly enhanced if you have completed a similar internship or work experience placement which brings us fittingly back to the central point of this post.

Great work is being done at increasing social mobility vis-a-vis university places. However, a struggle remains for those of us outside the capital when it comes to eventually finding work. I’m not saying graduates shouldn’t have to slog for their positions or that we should have them handed to us on a plate, but there needs to be some recognition by employers and recruitment consultants that it is more difficult for some to complete the desired internships and placements than others.

Otherwise, what is the point of getting all of these bright pupils into top universities only to then leave them stewing in the countryside?