Policies aimed at widening access to higher education (HE) are often underpinned by the assumption that education can act as an equaliser of life chances and a vehicle for social mobility. However, a growing body of research shows that a degree is not the great leveller and that, even among graduates, there are great social inequalities in their labour market outcomes. This already uneven playing field is likely to get worse due to the growing job uncertainty related to the economic and political changes brought about by the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and the more recent global pandemic.
Our new study improves upon the existing evidence by providing a different, more nuanced, longitudinal perspective of the education and labour market journeys followed by HE graduates. We used data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, the most recent birth cohort with detailed employment and education histories up to the age of 42.
Graduates’ journeys were analysed as different states - education, unemployment, inactivity, employment in different types of jobs - that graduates go through in their lives. We identified groups of graduates with similar experiences, and investigated whether being in any of these groups is related to their parents’ social class, to the timing of university graduation, and to the characteristics of their degrees, such as type of institution and subjects they graduated from and degree class achieved.
How do graduates’ experiences differ?
We found six distinct groups. Three-quarters of our graduates are in groups which lead to a professional and managerial occupation by the time they reach their twenties or thirties. Despite this overall positive outcome, we found marked differences in how graduates got there: some graduates followed more advantaged and smooth pathways, while others spent a considerable amount of time in intermediate and routine occupations.
To illustrate how graduates’ labour market experiences differ, the most and the least advantaged pathways are shown in the graphs below.
In these graphs, each horizontal coloured line represents one graduate’s education and working life over a period of 26 years, with their age from 16 to 42 shown on the horizontal axis. The vertical axis shows the number of graduates in our sample who belong to the two groups. The different colours, as indicated in the legend, represent the monthly activities which graduates are involved in.
The most advantaged cluster of trajectories, which we labelled ‘Direct and early entry into higher managerial and professional occupations’, comprises 22% of our sample. People in this group tend to graduate in their early twenties and secure a job in the highest social classes soon after graduation. Examples of such jobs include CEO, university professor, engineer, doctor etc. It is very uncommon for this group of graduates to work in routine and manual occupations during their career.
In contrast, a group of graduates (about 7% of the sample) ends up in the least advantaged career paths, which we labelled ‘Predominantly routine and manual occupations’. Graduates in this group often work in jobs related to lower social classes - for example, sales and retail assistant, cleaner, bus driver etc. - until their early thirties. By the time they are 42, about a third of them remain in the same type of job, but almost half moves up to lower managerial and professional occupations - for example, school teacher, nurse, technician and store manager. Their career paths are less structured, and periods of education are common, even later in life.
How pronounced are social class inequalities?
Looking at graduates from different social backgrounds, we investigated the relative chances of following the career paths described by the six groups. We measured graduates’ social background by the social class of their parents when they were ten years old.
We found substantial inequalities, especially with respect to the most advantaged and the least advantaged pathways. Graduates from more disadvantaged backgrounds - those whose parents were in routine and manual occupations - were around 8 percentage points less likely than their privileged counterparts - those with parents in higher managerial and professional occupations - to follow the most advantaged pathway ‘Direct and early entry into higher managerial and professional occupations’. In contrast, they were 16 percentage points more likely than their privileged counterparts to be in the group ‘Predominantly routine and manual occupations’.
This shows that there are strong links between graduates’ experiences and their social class background. Our findings also reveal that less socially advantaged graduates have more turbulent career paths, often changing between different activities, while graduates from more advantaged backgrounds have more structured and linear pathways.
Can differences in educational experiences explain social inequalities?
Amongst the educational characteristics investigated, we found that ‘age of graduation’ explains a great deal in terms of the disadvantage experienced by the less privileged graduates. Those from less advantaged backgrounds tend to graduate later and this reduces their chances of entering top jobs early on in their career and increases their chances of spending most of their career in non-graduate jobs. This is an important finding which suggests that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may have improved occupational outcomes if they go to university sooner rather than later.
Graduating from a pre-92 university (instead of a post-92 university) also helps to explain why graduates from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to achieve smoother transitions into top-level jobs. This is because a higher proportion of them attend these universities than their less advantaged peers and graduates from these universities were found to have higher chances of entering high professional and managerial jobs early on in their career. At the same time, whether a graduate attends a pre-92 university or a post-92 university and other HE factors, such as subjects studied and class degree, explain very little social background differences in the chances of following less advantaged trajectories.
Our findings have important policy implications. Promoting access to HE to people from disadvantaged social backgrounds does not automatically translate into equal access to top-level jobs. To ensure that people from lower social origins can reap the benefits associated with a university degree requires policies providing sustained support, which starts early on and continues beyond the years spent in education. Providing grants to help them financially, improving access to research-intensive universities, mentoring during their HE studies, and giving tailored career advice as they transition to the labour market are among the policies which would help these students to follow smoother pathways into top-level jobs.
About the authors
Professor Cristina Iannelli is Professor of Education and Social Stratification in the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. She also Co-Director of the Understanding Inequalities project.
Dr Adriana Duta is a Lecturer for Quantitative Methods in the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a Research Fellow of the Understanding Inequalities project. Follow her on Twitter: @adrianaduta