Universities’ influence on jobs remains a huge obstacle to social mobility

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The British have an unhealthy obsession with schooling. At a time of vague if well-nurtured class boundaries there remains an easily understood boundary between the privately and publicly educated.

Followers of British politics will know that Jeremy Corbyn’s advisor Seumas Milne is a Wykehamist, meaning a former pupil of Winchester College. This information is not useful, or even particularly telling, but you pick it up in passing from the press, and people feel it matters.

Milne’s educational history is redolent of Labour’s wider difficulties with private education. Corbyn and a few more in his team are also the product of expensive schooling, and some of his cabinet have been caught out attacking private schools while paying for their children to attend them.

Should Labour succeed in its new policy to abolish private schools, it will at least spare the blushes of future leftwing politicians forced to choose between their political principles and their child’s prospects. But it is less obvious what else it will achieve.

For starters, the obstacles to implementing the policy are legion. More knowledgeable people than me have outlined them at length, but suffice to say a Labour government would face legal challenges over seizing private school assets, a huge financial burden on public spending from pupils newly integrated into state schools, and backlash from those pushing “aspiration”.

Others have criticised the policy on the grounds it won’t help social mobility. Pointy elbowed parents, they say, will game catchment areas to get into good state schools, pay for extra tuition, or load up on extracurricular activities that help determine who gets university places.

Some of this is true, though I think it’s likely an integrated school system would be less prone to abuse by the rich than our current one. However, my criticism is more fundamental.

The motivating force for Labour’s policy is that the privately educated get too many good jobs. The Independent Schools Council thinks about 6.5% of British kids are privately educated, rising to 15% at sixth form level. Yet the Sutton Trust measures that privately educated people make up 39% of “leading professions”, which include senior judges, civil servants and Westminster politicians.

Some of this must be due to the effectiveness of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, plus a few other prestigious ones, in making their graduates attractive hires. Private schools are good at getting their kids into these universities, and therefore those good jobs. Good jobs make good money, and the cycle begins again with the next generation.

This is why who goes to what university matters. Many employers ask for applicants to have a degree – any degree – when applying for their vacancies, regardless of the subjects’ relevance to the work involved.

I know at least one English grad who works as an accountant, a modern language grad who deals with government IT, and a history grad who’s looking to enter the church. An engineer friend even disputes the relevance of much of his engineering degree to his working life.

Employers asking for degrees will have become more common as more people have attended university. When I entered journalism in 2014, 98% of my peers had a bachelor’s degree, according to the Reuters Institute. Plenty of older hacks will have walked into their first job at a local paper fresh from school.

Economists like Bryan Caplan would say that graduates are “signalling” their job-worthiness to prospective employers in these scenarios. The point of university is not necessarily that it prepares you for these jobs, or any job at all, but that it proves you can work to a standard. There are cheaper, easier ways to do that which would be less vulnerable to manipulation by the rich.

There are of course jobs that don’t fit this model, where graduate degrees are vocational courses – medicine being the obvious example. But even stout defenders of university education should admit we are over-educating many people to no real end, as evinced by the CIPD’s claim from 2017 that half of graduates failed to find graduate-level employment within six months of leaving university.

This situation will persist, and even worsen, so long as employers and government push children needlessly towards university. It’s at least as worthy a target of social mobility campaigners as the small number of private schools.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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