Is a degree really the route to social mobility?

The Universities and Science Minister says those with a degree earn much more than those without. But does a university education really mean freedom from social inequalities? Or can students’ experiences during university perpetuate social divisions? Daniel Devine, a final year undergraduate at the University of Essex, discusses the evidence.

Student job hunters Picture Credit: Thompson Rivers

Policymakers have focused much attention on how universities can attract students of all backgrounds equally, and how, once in university, training is given to aid them in getting the best graduate jobs. In a recent report, the government’s social mobility czar, Alan Milburn, cited four stages of a student’s life: ‘getting ready’, ‘getting in’, ‘staying in’ and ‘getting on’.

In relation to ‘staying in’, the report showed how drop-out rates were correlated with economic status. But this was as close as it got to discussing the problem of inequality during university.  This lack of focus might go some way to explaining the lack of efficacy of government policy to date.

A key aspect of this is the negative effect of part-time employment  on degree results. A student working 15 hours a week is 60 per cent less likely to get a good degree in comparison to an identical non-working student, according to research published in 2008.

And it is not difficult to see why. Amongst students in my year, those who study and work are more busy, more tired, and have less time to participate in the crucial extras such as more meaningful work experience or departmental events.

And working part-time is not entirely a choice. It is systematic.  The 2008 research, based on 2002 data, found  55 per cent of women, 59 per cent of ethnic minorities, 56 per cent of mature students and 60 per cent of students from a lower social class had a job during term-time. This contrasted with their counterparts:  for example, just 48 per cent of all male students worked, whilst 50 per cent of those from a ‘professional’ social class did so.

Additionally, those who were already struggling with debt or to meet bills were more likely to work. Given that this data is now more than a decade old, it is entirely possible these distinctions are even more stark now. Fees have gone up twice since then, leading to a nine-fold increase.

Clearly we need to update our knowledge with more rigorous and recent academic research.

These divisions are reflected in the levels of part-time work between students at different universities, with a report from 2005 highlighting that institutions which attract less privileged students, including part-time and stay-at-home students, could suffer too, through decreased aggregate student achievement.

Recent changes will only exacerbate the problem. As Milburn’s report highlights, the United Kingdom is already behind other OECD countries in its investment in higher education. Recent rises in tuition fees mean potential students expect more debt than ever before – current graduates owe 60 per cent more than their pre-2008 equivalents, according to the Student Loans Company. And this will make them more likely either not to apply at all, or to work during their degree to off-set debt fears. This could have implications for social mobility.

But the academic world has also given this less attention than it deserves. Most research focuses on individual institutions, and the data and methodology used is kept private, making it hard to draw conclusions. There is no large public data and no cross-national comparison, which would deepen our understanding and potential policy recommendations.

The little research we can see is limited, with a small sample size and limited to few universities. The impact on working students compared to non-working students of 60 per cent of the degree grade, could actually vary between 40 per cent and 90 per cent – meaning the real value could lie anywhere in between. Whilst the findings look robust in general, they do not seem strong enough to provide good evidence for specific policy recommendations.

Other research, however, suggests a university education does not eliminate social inequality. A report from Bristol University, for example, finds that, although ethnic minorities are more likely than white people to go on to higher education, they perform worse both during their studies and in the employment market afterwards. Black people are considerably more likely to obtain a lower second or third class degree, even after motivation and previous education are controlled for.

The same can be said of social class. There is a 13.6 per cent gap between those who come from the most privileged areas compared to those from the least privileged areas in the numbers achieving a 2:1 class of degree or higher, according to research from the Higher Education Funding Council. Similar inequalities exist for those with disabilities and those who went to state schools.

The evidence is strong enough to cast doubt on a recent claim by David Willets, the Universities and Science Minister, that those who go to university can boost their lifetime earnings by as much as £250,000. But it is possible, if not likely, that the inequalities that exist before university carry on during university and into adulthood. Indeed, it has been argued that getting a third or lower second increases a graduate’s chances of being unemployed to more than the national average.

University is not a leveller of inequality. The benefits are not distributed equally. We must turn our focus on this key issue.

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