University

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?

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The Great Lie?

Halfway through my final year of university a sudden change took place. University, far from being the liberating and hedonistic trip of self-discovery it was surely meant to be, started to feel like a cage, a prison. Instead of unleashing my true self it felt like it was holding me back. Yes, what I needed was to ditch that place, spread my wings and take off to wherever took my fancy. As finals approached and then the parties (oh, the parties. Those drunken nights that could never live up to the expectations we set for them. The pressure to have a good time was, in itself, crippling, and by 4am and after copious amounts of champagne, burgers and chocolate fountain, one had nothing left to do but sit on a rock and sigh about how the end of one’s university experience could never really be the like the fairground scene in ‘Grease’, no matter how many times you sang ‘We Go Together’ (this is a lie, no one sang it with me)) the urgency to get out increased and then finally the shadowy doors swung open and I was able to see the daylight for the very first time.

Only, the whole thing is a lie. The crushing reality hits you that the world, in fact, is not your oyster and that most of the things you could ever dream of doing are already closed off to you (astronaut, professional tennis player, teenage pop sensation). Instead, the reality is that you must sit around at home all day on your laptop ‘looking for jobs’. Recruitment consultants will contact you with “jobs that I think you’d really suit” only to never call you back once they realise your voice is a little unusual. You end up watching all of your ambition and drive sap from your pores and, in the end, the question becomes not whether you will or won’t settle but the degree to which you are willing to settle.

Of course, there is always the option of becoming rich, famous or both. This alternative has no escaped my mind and I have been diligently pursuing ways in which I can become disgustingly rich or nab a regular guest appearance on This Morning. Thus far, my attempts have included writing a novel (of which one page was successfully completed, although, I might add, the idea remains just as vivid), creating my own TV series in the vein of Lena Dunham, designing an app to make me millions (I even got as far as downloading Xcode before the realisation hit that I had no idea what to do) or becoming a television presenter. At the date of writing, all of these attempts have so far failed.

Now dear reader, I hope you won’t think me shallow or as someone who is only looking for the easy route to success. I very much understand the next few years will be a continuous slog but at some point – hopefully – the well-deserved rewards will come. I know many people consider my generation to be filled with a sense of entitlement and, to some extent, I think we are but I don’t think this is a bad thing. Yes, we believe we have the right to a certain standard of living and, if we work hard enough, we should expect success in education and the workplace but is this such a bad thing? And if it is, can we really be blamed for it? After all, it is the generation before us who became convinced that we should all go to university, only to then deride us for complaining about having to do low-paid and unskilled work when we have a degree. Wasn’t it also the previous generation who wanted to instil in us a sense that we could achieve anything if we wanted it enough and who tried to save our feelings if we came last in sports day or realised that, actually, we were just a bit shit. I’m not saying all of the blame should be shifted but at least acknowledge that part of the reason we are as we are is because we grew up in a context created for us.

My quest for a meaningful life goes on (and I very much hope you will join me for it) but I want to leave you with one last message. This post has been a bit ranty and pessimistic and for that I most certainly do not apologise. I do not, either, really believe that we are sold a great lie about what is possible; I still very much believe the lives we want are all out there waiting for us. What I also believe, though, is that wanting it isn’t enough. You have to take concrete steps to achieving it and, yes, it may be a bit shit for a while and you may have to settle temporarily but in the end you can do it. I was naive to think liberation would come the second I left university – it hasn’t. But that doesn’t mean it won’t. The doors to this particular cage are ajar just a little more and to swing them open completely is going to take one hell of an effort. But it’s an effort I’m committed to.