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How universities and employers can improve social mobility

November 2018

A working class background remains the biggest barrier to getting an education, with these students more likely to face stresses and drop out of university

At Prospects' second Luminate event, Shakira Martin - president of the National Union of Students (NUS) - emphasised the importance of the student voice and the struggles that working class individuals still face in education.

Morven Hamilton (Stafford Long, a creative agency owned by Penna), Mark Jackson (Fujitsu) and Terry Manyeh (RECLAIM) joined the panel of experts to discuss social mobility in the workplace and how universities can collaborate with employers.

Class 'at the heart' of social mobility question

Asked about the role of class, Terry said it was 'at the heart of most issues'. He argued that we need to move away from the current nervousness around class as the gap is only getting bigger.

Shakira pointed out that class was the 'largest barrier to getting jobs and experiencing the life changing opportunities that the education system has to offer. Until this is solved it will always be for the privileged. It is a product of years of neglect from previous governments.'

For many, class is an issue extending beyond university education. In her keynote speech, Shakira gave the example of working-class individuals in the creative industries, contending that some will struggle to become self-employed unless they are from a privileged background - as not all graduates can rely on financial support from their families.

Early outreach is the key to securing talent

Morven stressed that 'you cannot wait until students are leaving university before encouraging them to enter the top industries. It's too late by then.' Going into schools and educating young people about the types of industries they can enter will influence the career aspirations of those who might previously have been unaware of the opportunities available to them.

It was highlighted that early outreach is a long process, with many employers having to wait years for the talent to go through the education system before they see any benefit, but it is an important step to take if a company is to broaden its talent.

Small changes to recruitment can have a significant effect

Creating a diverse workforce doesn't have to be difficult. Simple measures such as checking the language used in job adverts can widen your applicant pool. Morven said that we often speak with the language we use internally, forgetting that those outside of the industry may be unfamiliar with the terminology. It is beneficial to check adverts with those from other industries, and younger people too, to see whether the language makes them feel included or excluded.

At Fujitsu, Mark explained, they looked at the areas people come from, what university they went to and what their grades were. The results showed there was no real difference between area or university and grades when related to future performance. It is therefore important to restrict any unconscious bias in employers' recruitment methods. As a result, Fujitsu altered their interview process to include diverse panels, which had a profound effect.

To reach disabled applicants, Fujitsu also redesigned their website alongside recommendations from a disabled employee to make it more user friendly, and following this, their number of disabled graduate applications increased.

Mark underlined that being upfront about your recruitment process, how you will make adjustments for disabled applicants, and highlighting any fair employment policies can go a long way. He added that graduates would leave if they could not see any role models to look up to. Diversifying the workforce at all levels and implementing reverse mentoring so those at the top can gain insights from newcomers were among the recommendations.

Technology is beneficial, but it's not everything

For those outside of urban centres, the opportunity to network can be limited. Networking is often essential for accessing work experience, so it is important to create opportunities for young people to gain work experience/networks wherever they are. 'The technology is there, why can't we do virtual work experience so that young people can do virtual projects and not get left behind those who have physical access?' was a question raised by Mark where he encouraged the use of technology to the students' advantage.

However Morven warned that 'technology isn't a magic solution to social mobility issues'. Not all schools have access to the same technology - extending the gap between the privileged and those who are disadvantaged.

Change requires partnership

Shakira said she was proud to be working on the NUS Poverty Commission. In her speech she made the point that universities cannot maintain sole responsibility for tackling the issue.

In her view, support from the government and communities is crucial to mitigate the burden of financial costs. Private landlords need to reduce rent over the summer and rail cards offering a 50% reduction in fares would help with transport costs. Maintenance grants and increased student income are also important. 'How can we improve social mobility when the money from the debt of poor students ends up back with those at the top of the ladder?' asked Shakira.

It's more than just 'targets'

Shakira said it was time to move past 'targets' and focus on meaningful discussions about the barriers faced. 'It's ok to widen university student participation, but how do we stop them dropping out? How do we support them long term?' More needs to be done to help disadvantaged students successfully progress through their studies and ensure they have a smooth transition into employment.

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