AGR Blog

Career guidance and bridging the social mobility gap


nicholas miller

Nik Miller, an AGR associate and Director of the Bridge Group, shares a study on the link between socio-economic background and graduate outcomes, considering the role of universities and employers. He has advised on strategies to improve socio-economic diversity and is regularly commissioned to author national policy reports.


The key social policy challenge of our time

It’s no easy task for a country to maintain its position as the least equal in Europe.

The UK continues to hold this accolade, and the debate about social mobility rages on. It is increasingly hard to feel proud, or even comfortable, about the society in which we live. The vast gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening; those without the advantages of affluence appear discontent or disengaged; and influence in politics, the media, business and culture is largely the property of the elite.

Higher education is critically at the heart of this debate. For many, a university education is the route to greater health, wealth and happiness, and is the main gateway to the professions. However, university places continue to be accessed disproportionately by those from wealthier backgrounds, and a vast amount of resource has been directed towards addressing this. This focus on access is welcome, but has been imbalanced. It has historically been assumed that participation in higher education has a social levelling effect: once you’re in, you’ll get ahead.

This is a myth.


The gap in graduate outcomes by socio-economic background

Higher tuition fees, new evidence, and a more discriminating sense of value amongst students have all sharpened the focus on graduate outcomes. Those for whom the cost of higher education is most acute often benefit the least. Students from more affluent backgrounds benefit from better graduate outcomes compared to their less advantaged peers, even once we control for institution attended, subject studied, and a range of other relevant factors: the latest evidence from the IFS indicates a 10% salary premium for more affluent students.


The role of careers services

A recent report from the Bridge Group, published in partnership with the UPP Foundation, is the first to focus explicitly on the role of careers services in addressing the gap in graduate outcomes. Effective career guidance can contribute significantly to realising more equal outcomes for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, including through improved retention, attainment and progression to employment.


Factors contributing to unequal outcomes

The report highlights a complex mix of factors that interweave to create unequal graduate outcomes. Students’ experiences of careers education prior to university are formative, and have a significant impact on subsequent outcomes. A quick and comfortable transition to university also plays an important role in graduate outcomes: the speed with which students settle into university typically affects participation in key activities during the initial year of study (the time when leading employers are increasingly identifying students as prospective hires).

Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds participate less in activities that have greatest currency amongst employers. This includes extra-curricular activities (leadership roles in sports and societies, for example); internships; international opportunities to study and work; and postgraduate education.

The practices of employers can be supportive, or deeply unhelpful, in widening opportunities to talented students from lower socio-economic groups. The latter include: marketing strategies limited to a small number of institutions; campus presence that engages only self-selected students; screening university applicants by school attainment; selection processes that show conscious bias towards more affluent applicants; and troublingly ambiguous definitions of talent. However, much progress is being made by a modestly sized, but important, community of employers.



Maximising the potential of all students is critical to the current skills gap (which risks being exacerbated by Brexit), and the advantages of diversity in the workplace will only be realised if the pipeline enables students from all backgrounds to excel.

More fundamentally we can’t boast of a ‘world class’ higher education system, when it risks perpetuating disadvantage, rather than alleviating it. The ultimate prize is a system that realises its potential to act as a powerful engine for social equality.

So, what can be done practically? There is no single solution to narrow the gap in graduate outcomes. The report makes a wide range of recommendations, which include the following:

  • The 2016 careers service resources survey developed by AGCAS should be undertaken annually, be enhanced in its detail and level of analysis, and include bespoke reports comparing universities from different mission groups and locations.
  • Far greater consideration should be given by the sector and by policy-makers to the way in which university league tables disincentivise the important role of universities in tackling social immobility.
  • Whilst there is much good work being undertaken to embed careers provision within the curricula, the following should be standard at all institutions: a dedicated, trained member of academic staff in each department with responsibility for partnering with careers professionals to embed careers provision (with the same status and time allocation as, for example, an academic colleague leading on admissions); disaggregated data available to individual departments; and a member of the senior leadership team (for example, a pro-vice-chancellor) to champion and have shared accountability for outcomes.
  • NUS should guide Student Unions to collate and submit robust diversity data with respect to participation in student societies and sports. This should be shared across the sector in aggregate to enhance knowledge of the characteristics of the students most likely to be gaining experiences that are often highly regarded by employers.
  • Careers programmes that formalise, recognise, and provoke students to reflect on their experiences should be common practice in the sector, and participation rates closely monitored to assess whether students likely to benefit most are accessing these programmes.               
  • We advocate: a four-week legal limit on unpaid internships; employers accessing the apprenticeship levy funding to generate quality placements for students; greater enforcement of Minimum Wage legislation in relation to internships; the publishing of accessible guidance on the rights of interns; and strongly encouraging employers to advertise all internships.
  • Universities should be much more ambitious in creating meaningful employment opportunities for students on campus, and adopt best practice recruitment and selection approaches for this, to promote diversity.
  • Careers services should develop mechanisms to ensure that access to international work experience opportunities are not conditional on students having access to significant personal finance. Institutional options may include subsidy for eligible students through Access Agreement funding, fundraising for discretionary monies to support students, or encouraging employers to provide supporting funds.

For further information access the full report or contact


There is an AGR Professional workshop, delivered by Nik Miller on 26 September, and a webinar on the 10 November.


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