Recent research released by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) found that there are extreme disparities in the pay of graduates from London universities. Researchers found that a typical 25-year-old London graduate, with a socio-economically deprived background, earns £1664 less each year than a graduate of the same age who grew up in a wealthier household.
The researchers also found that graduates with poorer backgrounds struggle to compete in the graduate jobs market. A lack of professional connections, work experience and the ‘soft skills’ desired by employers, slants the corporate hiring process against graduates with poorer backgrounds and in favour of the wealthier, better connected candidates. Unfortunately, this research is not an aberration, but a symptom of a persistent problem that is widely known but rarely talked about in the UK.
Since its creation by the government as an independent advisory body in 2010, The Social Mobility Commission has continually sounded the alarm bells about the bleak and stagnant levels of inequality in the UK. Indeed, the commission’s 2018/19 report found that those from low income backgrounds earn an average of £8,000 less than their wealthier counterparts. On top of this, even when people from working-class backgrounds break into the higher paying ‘professional’ roles, they still earn significantly less (17%) than their more privileged colleagues. As argued by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, the authors of ‘The Class Ceiling’ (2019), it quite literally pays to be privileged.
From these statistics, it is clear that the UK has failed to truly come to terms with the scale and magnitude of its income and class inequalities. Universities, who sit at a critical juncture between education and the world of work, have also been complicit in neglecting critical conversations surrounding class, socio-economic status and social mobility. Despite the increased representation of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in higher education institutions, universities consistently admit 18% more students from higher-income backgrounds than they do students of lower-income backgrounds. At the same time, the dropout rate for part-time lower-income students is higher than ever. Along with an opaque and confusing financial aid system, the UK’s current university system severely curtails the ability of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to gain or make use of a university degree.
Moreover, in her interview with the Gryphon in April, Catheryne Sturgess-Fairbairn, LUU’s 2020 Community Executive, outlined the isolating effects of the additional costs and pressures felt by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds during their university experience:
“It’s both the small things, like being able to have the social life at Leeds, and the bigger things, like being able to add to and enhance your degree, which exclude working-class students.”
However, it is also true that universities have the capacity not to perpetuate the harmful effects of this current system. Sturgess-Fairbairn has been instrumental in bringing critical and constructive conversations regarding how socio-economic status can shape every facet of our university experience, to the fore. While it is essential to continue to press for systematic change at a national level, important work can also be done at a local level to help ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to access whatever career they desire, regardless of their socio-economic background.
UpReach is a national charity focussing on just that. With a laser focus on social mobility, UpReach tackles the socio-economic barriers to employment on two fronts. For students, they provide an intensive program of support to help build networks, develop ‘soft skills’ and access career opportunities. On the employer front, UpReach works to change discriminatory corporate hiring practices by permeating their organisational culture with a real commitment to equal opportunity and diversity.
This week (beginning December 2nd) has seen students at the University of Leeds launch their own Upreach chapter. The society will take on the mission and spirit of the national charity by creating a welcoming community of students and staff who can provide meaningful support, advice and connections to anyone struggling to overcome the barriers faced at university. ‘UpReach: The Social Mobility Society’ aims to put the issue of social mobility centre stage in the University as well as in the city of Leeds more widely. The society will hold free ‘No-BS, No dress code and No Stupid questions’ careers events, which will work alongside students to ensure all students on campus are heard and seen. It will also deliver educational workshops in Leeds’s schools. The society’s inaugural ‘Wtf is ‘Social Mobility’?’ panel discussion helped set the tone for UpReach Leeds by bringing together the main political parties on campus to debate the meaning and significance of social mobility.
UpReach is a key addition to Leeds’ already vibrant set of societies and charities, which represent disadvantaged and historically marginalised groups. Class disparities and stagnating social mobility are nothing new in British society, yet they are rarely defined or highlighted as issues that need to be tackled. It is the hope that UpReach Leeds will not only provide resources to aid the professional development of disadvantaged students, but will also initiate an open and honest discussion about the role that class identity and social mobility play in the workplace, universities and in our country.
Make sure to join the UpReach Leeds Facebook group for more information about upcoming events and how to get involved!