How to integrate students from lower socio-economic backgrounds

Nov 29, 2022 | Diversity, How-to

Graham Philpott, Head of Careers Consultancy at University of Reading offers advice for creating an inclusive culture and successfully integrating students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Levelling Up has been a mantra for the last few years and this means different things for different people. One definition applicable to student employers could be, ‘ensuring that we have a proportional representation of employees from all socio-economic backgrounds, and that those employees are all doing equally as well whilst they are employed by us’.

Social mobility was one of the themes at the recent ISE EDI Conference. I really enjoyed running a workshop exploring some of the considerations and hearing from the UK’s first Professor of social mobility, Lee Elliot Major OBE.

Currently people from the lower socio-economic backgrounds only account for 18% of the UK’s ‘elite’ professions, despite making up 32% of the overall workforce (The Class Ceiling: Why it pays to be privileged).

And those that do get into these professions earn 14% less than those from the higher socio-economic backgrounds. That’s why Class Pay Gap day is commemorated each year by the Social Mobility Foundation.

People from lower socio-economic backgrounds often have intersections with the other under-represented groups, such as race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sexuality. In fact it was remarked at the conference, that socio-economic background is the thread that joins all other EDI activity together. Where these intersections do occur, the representation and income disparities multiply.

How can we address these gaps, and level up?

I believe that there are a number of steps we can take to level up. Recruiting more students from lower-socio economics groups is a necessary, but difficult, step, and I’ll leave that to another blogpost to explore.

Integrating students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to help retain them into the medium and long-term is vital. This means introducing them to the environment in which they can thrive and ensuring they have the tools to succeed. Here are six ways that can help the integration process.

1. Gather data and monitor your socio-economic make up

Do you know the socio-economic background of your staff? As socio-economic background is not a protected characteristic, some organisations do not gather data about it. So if you don’t currently gather this data, addressing that gap is the best place to start.

Once you do have the data, ensure that it is monitored alongside the protected characteristics. Also set up systems so that you can understand how socio-economic background intersects with the protected characteristics.

2. Analyse your current situation

Different organisations will have different challenges, so understanding your own situation is a foundation for improvement. The type of product or service you deliver, your customer base, the location of your places of work, the prevalence of remote working, the professions of your employees, and many other variables, will affect how much of an issue this is for you and what you can do to tackle it.

3. Senior leadership support

If you have challenges to address, then institutional change will be required to achieve the changes. These kinds of change can be painful and disruptive, so it’s important that there is significant support from the highest levels of management to keep the levels of focus and energy needed.

4. Raise awareness and confidence in the organisation

It’s the middle layers of an organisation that implement any changes, so these are the ones that need to believe in the changes and feel empowered and enabled to see it through.

Addressing ‘the way things work around here’ can lead to multiple difficult situations and conversations. That means that your line and middle managers will need to be developed so that they can work in the new way, bring their teams with them and be rewarded for doing the right things in the right way.

5. Review your recruitment and selection methods

Are your systems set up to deliver more of the same or to deliver a broader range of new starters? Are you advertising in places that people from lower socio-economic groups will see? Are you using language and imagery than will connect with them? Are your selection methods fair to people who may not have had any connection with your environment before? Are the people involved in the recruitment looking beyond ‘polish’ to the underlying strengths and potential?

6. Be honest with and support new recruits

Part of addressing any imbalance will include bringing in new people to an environment that is not yet fully ready for them. So it’s important that you are honest with them that they are part of the change process and that you support them with this.

Examples of this support discussed in at the ISE event were the development of staff support groups, training around imposter syndrome, open discussions at development events and formal mentoring programmes. Additional monetary support at the beginning of the employment for purchasing a set of suitable work clothes, a remote working set up and so on was also suggested.


Creating a truly inclusive culture is a challenge for any organisation. For some it will take long-term, concerted efforts to make a material difference. It was clear at the conference that there’s in no silver bullet, no one thing that will work for all employers, but opening up a workforce to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds will massively increase the talent pool, and that’s good for everyone.

Read more insight and advice on creating inclusive work cultures

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