Why the UK is still socially immobile and what to do about it

Mar 7, 2023 | Diversity, Webinars

In a recent ISE webinar a panel of experts discussed how we solve the UK’s social mobility problem.

Dr Louise Ashley of QMUL, Dan Doherty from Cognizant, Ellie Long from Rolls-Royce, and Patrick Philpott, founder of Visionpath, joined ISE CEO Stephen Isherwood for a social mobility webinar.

Our panel of experts discussed why social mobility is a difficult issue to resolve, what initiatives in our sector do and don’t work, and what we need to do differently to improve outcomes for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.


The poor stay poor and the rich stay rich

Social mobility is what change management consultants call a ‘wicked problem’. There is no known solution to improve social mobility, the issue of social mobility comprises a multitude of contributary societal problems, and the issue is hard to define – some even say the problem doesn’t exist.

But the UK does have a social mobility problem. Despite significant time and resources invested by employers and educators to improve social mobility through education and into work, the UK performs poorly when compared to other developed nations.

Disadvantaged individuals are less likely to climb the income ladder, and the economically advantaged tend to stay at the top’, reported Goldman Sachs in 2002.

Ten years ago, the focus was on equipping students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the skills to navigate the recruitment process – a supply-side approach.

Many policy makers thought that investment in education was the solution, that by improving access to higher education, more people from poorer socio economic groups would become lawyers, accountants, journalists and even politicians.

But ‘the education system as a whole has failed to function as the great social leveller’, reported the Sutton Trust last year.

The message from the Sutton Trust to policy makers is: ‘ to turn [your] attention to the workplace, and to resist the temptation to focus solely on education’.


Employer challenges

Employers are putting more resources into social mobility programmes. 66% of ISE employer members now have targets to improve the socio-economic diversity of student hires.

More than half (58%) run programmes that target lower socio-economic background students. A decade ago, less than 20% of ISE members were even thinking about social mobility.

But despite the significant time and resources invested by employers and educators to improve social mobility through education and into work, we still live in a ‘modern era of declining opportunities and more limited upward mobility’.

Employers face a broad range of obstacles.

  • Lack of data: even those employers that gather data on applications and new hires struggle to find data on the profile of existing employees
  • Leader engagement: without support from the C-suite it can be difficult to gain enterprise-wide buy-in to social mobility initiatives
  • Institutional mindset: challenging existing practices, especially if line managers don’t perceive the problem, is difficult


What can employers do about it?

To solve a ‘wicked problem’, employers need to work on multiple activities. Dropping academic selection criteria and mandating unconscious bias training alone are unlikely to alter who gets in and who gets on.

1. Use data to understand communities

Social mobility is hard to measure. Free school meals, education postcodes, and first generation to university, are all measures that can indicate disadvantage, or even hide advantage.

Probably apocryphal, but we’ve all heard of the boarding school pupil who ticked the free school meals box as in their mind they hadn’t paid for them.

Some state schools draw from affluent areas and even the most affluent postcodes contain areas of deprivation. So single measures are likely to be ineffective. The use of multiple data points is essential.


2. Remove barriers to applications

A growing number of employers are removing academic criteria from their selection process.

Rolls Royce has dropped maths as a requirement and replaced numerical testing with a situational judgement test. If an engineering firm can be radical so can other sectors.

Applicants with limited prior knowledge of recruitment practices, those who don’t have networks that can tell them how the system works, will need additional support in the pre-selection stage.

Look closely at your selection process, where can technology help and where is people time required?


3. Challenge an institutionalised mindset

The graduate recruitment cycle, what used to be called the milk-round, locks employers, universities and students into set campaign periods and autumn start dates.

By onboarding students throughout the year, processes become more open to career-changers, second-jobbers, those who had to balance work, study and caring through their degree.


4. Beware of ‘best practice’

Learning from others what has worked and what hasn’t is a great way to evolve practices. But industry behaviours can get locked in under the guise of perceived ‘best practice’; even when what once worked doesn’t anymore (see prior example of an engineering firm who dropped numerical testing).

One advantage of advances in recruitment technology is that employers can focus at all stages of a selection process. If certain types of students disproportionately fail an element of your process, investigate why.


Equality and social mobility are not always the same

Depending on how we define equality, there can be a difference between social mobility and equality. Our sector should beware that a focus on social mobility that does not tackle underlying structural issues can legitimise inequality – an attitude that those who don’t make it through deserve their lot.

The early career sector needs to focus on activities that help individual students develop, but also work on the multiple structural forces that block positive career outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We can only achieve this through collaboration across education and employment.


You may also be interested in reading…

3 ways to support socially diverse apprentices

How Rare and Herbert Smith Freehills are tackling bias in recruitment

How to integrate students from lower socio-economic backgrounds

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