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Social Mobility in Graduate Recruitment

December 2013

Why did we do this research?

  • The Milburn Report on access to the professions has made social mobility a hot topic in recent years. Political figures including the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, have made prominent interventions on the topic.
  • Despite this, the UK has continued to see widening economic inequality and decreasing social mobility since about 1980.
  • A study by the Boston Consulting Group calculates that stalled social mobility is costing the UK between £56bn and £140bn annually in lost GDP.
  • This is, so far as we can ascertain, the first report linking social theory, university admissions and the practice of social mobility in relation to graduate recruitment.

The theory

  • We adapt a framework from the French thinker, Pierre Bourdieu, to suggest that the presence or absence of capital may complicate efforts to select solely on grounds of ability.
  • Through this lens we examine four types of capital:
    Economic capital refers to your financial circumstances.
    Social capital refers, in essence, to who you know.
    Cultural capital is in three forms - institutionalised, embodied and objectified. They collectively refer to cultural habits, gestures, verbal - and body - languages as well as broader societal, political and historical awareness; the intuitively learned skills to express such knowledge and know-how; and the cultural currency that certain achievements have in context e.g. university degrees or accolades.

The practice: what did we find?

  • All the Russell Group universities collect contextual data on social, educational and family background.
  • Rather than looking at GCSE, AS Level and A Level results in isolation, universities generally look at them in the context in which they were achieved – that is, they look at the average grade results in a candidate's school or college and compare them with what the candidate has achieved.
  • Cambridge University goes further, and uses an algorithm to compare numerically a candidate's performance with the norm in his school or college. This is a simple, effective, easily understood tool – and we believe it would work in graduate recruitment too.
  • Universities will not generally use contextual data in a hard and fast way, but use it to support informed professional judgments about who to interview and who to admit.
  • This sometimes includes deciding to interview a candidate with particularly arresting circumstances who is just below the usual cut-off point.
  • Universities monitor the performance of candidates who were admitted on the basis of contextual data, and the evidence from this monitoring suggests that these candidates perform at least as well as their peers.

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