The Knowledge

Work experience: the missing ingredient for social mobility

A new report sheds light on why limited access to quality work experience stops talent rising to the top

A new report sheds light on why limited access to quality work experience stops talent rising to the top

29 Apr 2024, 5:00

The harsh reality in the UK today is that privilege still matters when it comes to higher education. We are lucky to be home to some of the highest-ranking universities in the world, but every year the race for university spots at top institutions (and therefore the highly-regarded and lucrative careers they open up)  gets fiercer and more pupils from already under-served communities get left behind.

The number of successful offers from Russell Group universities dropped from 60 per cent in 2021 to 55 per cent in 2022. Meanwhile, students from wealthy backgrounds are six times more likely to secure a spot than their less-privileged peers.

With a general election looming, it is incumbent on all parties to ensure fair access to top universities is at the heart of their offer for improving social mobility. Our new report sheds light on how that might be done.

More than grades

The attainment gap between the least and most advantaged is greater now than at any point in the past ten years. This undeniably creates a major obstacle for disadvantaged young people to reach Russell Group universities. But our latest report from Speakers for Schools shows that getting in isn’t just about grades.

Double Disadvantage finds that work experience and participation in enrichment activities really does increase the chance of success in university applications. UCAS research also tells us that at least one-third of the time, evidence of these activities in personal statements showcases passion, interest and preparedness that will affect an admission officer’s decision.

Equal access to opportunity

Work experience clearly adds value. For some courses, like medicine or veterinary science, it is listed as an essential/desirable requirement. Yet 50 per cent of young people in state education don’t have access to work experience. For those who do, we know little about the quality of these placements.

Speakers for Schools has previously shown that access to work experience unfairly favours those from a privileged background, whether through personal connections or attending schools with the capacity to provide a high-quality career education.

If young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not informed about submitting a successful application to a prestigious university and don’t have the means to access opportunities that showcase their interests and achievements, the challenge can become unsurmountable. 

Transparency about admissions

Admissions are a bit of a mystery too. Even though universities check personal statements for work experience, they don’t always spell out exactly what they’re looking for. That’s a problem, especially for aspiring students with the right grades who don’t know where to look to find information about what top universities want.

We need to democratise access to privileged information about successful applications. This needs to be at the heart of fair access and opportunity-for-all policies. Universities, through their outreach programmes, need to step forward and offer insight about successful applications.

Lack of early access to insights and information about the ingredients of successful applications undermines existing efforts to widen participation.

What needs to happen?

Russell Group universities serve as a pipeline to many top jobs. Admissions processes must be sophisticated enough to recognise talent and potential wherever it resides. However, it is also incumbent on the wider education system to ensure that we provide young people with the opportunities they need to demonstrate their potential beyond academic study.

It is promising to see the reinstatement of two weeks’ work experience in the Labour Party manifesto already; our work so far has shown that work experience has the potential to largely impact young people’s outcomes and, eventually, social mobility.

However, it is essential to ensure that the quality of these experiences is nothing short of the absolute best so young people from state education can compete on a level playing field.

Whichever government we see next, they need to provide a ringfenced budget so schools and colleges can provide universal access to meaningful opportunities.

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