Social Mobility and How Access to the Professions can be Improved: is employer outreach part of the solution?

Earning differences between graduates from lower and higher socio-economic backgrounds are as high as 10 per cent according to research (Britton et al., 2016; Crawford and Erve, 2015). Reasons for this disparity are multifaceted and complex; including an inability to engage with extracurricular and developmental activities, lack of confidence when career planning, and discrimination from employers. Universities and employers have focussed on ‘supply side’ initiatives where the emphasis is on the student developing their skills and experience, and this is reflected in government policy.

Research by academics at Sheffield Hallam University examines the role of employer outreach initiatives through the evaluation of such an initiative. Following discussions about how to increase student-engagement with London law firms, we organised an event (outlined in the attached paper) which involved an international London law firm and representatives of a post-1992 university in the north of England. Indeed data obtained by Chambers Student show that graduates from Russell Group universities made up 86.2 per cent of graduate trainees in London firms between 2013-2015.

Our focus group, involving students participating in the event with the London law firm, found positive results. Students reported a notable impact on their drive to succeed in their studies and a self-reported rise in their level of self-efficacy. However, there were clear constraints to these benefits. Participants also reported that their increase in self-efficacy was precarious to setbacks. This is reflected in the literature which maintains that robust impacts on self-efficacy are more likely to be gained through long term direct experience.

Our findings show what contact between students and the professions can achieve in highlighting opportunities. However, its impact is limited and only part of the solution. We advocate a more active role for public policy in addressing a lack of diversity at the higher levels of our labour market. This might take the form of affirmative action programmes, such as those provided in the US. However, if Government policy continues to favour supply side responses, there are clear areas for improvement within the confines of the Government’s current social mobility strategy. We would suggest the following:

  • Employers who approach graduate recruitment with a view to the long-term, offering summer internships, mentoring and support for candidates should be recognised. The study suggests that support should be targeted towards those at a labour market disadvantage. Furthermore, the Government needs to positively acknowledge and communicate the benefits of such practices on the economy.
  • The importance of role models tied to social class or social status needs to be recognised for its impact on young people from similar social backgrounds. The Government should develop their current policy for increasing employer engagement in schools with this in mind.

The UK faces a major challenge in addressing social inequality and the entrenched and inter-generational earnings differential. Some of the solutions, as we have found, lie in better partnership between universities, the professions and government.

By Teri-Lisa Griffiths, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Jill Dickinson, Senior Lecturer in Law


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