Social background continues to affect graduate job prospects

The latest research shows that social background and parental education continue to influence the labour market outcomes of graduates. Researchers found that extracurricular activities taken on during studies could counteract the disadvantages of a less privileged background, but the same disadvantages also created barriers to students’ involvement in such activities. The study also revealed a significant gender wage gap, particularly in areas such as the legal sector.

About the study

The UK’s most comprehensive longitudinal study of university applicants and their career paths has shown that social background continues to be a critical factor in determining educational and labour market outcomes. The Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) carried out a Futuretrack study of 120,000 applicants to university in 2006–2007. The study looked at the educational and cultural capital that university entrants brought into higher education, and the extent to which prior social and educational advantage and disadvantage had been reinforced or overcome.

Main findings

The report shows that increasing unemployment and higher numbers of students leaving higher education have combined to increase the rate of unemployment among graduates. It also showed that 40% of graduates were employed in jobs that did not require a degree.

The research compared the labour market outcomes of successful graduates with peers who had applied for university admission but did not graduate. While the findings reveal a continuing wage premium for degree-level education, they also show a decline across the board in real annual earnings for graduates compared with previous Futuretrack research on the 1999 graduating cohorts.

Graduates’ labour market prospects were also affected by the university that they attended, the course they studied and the category of degree they achieved.

However, the research also showed that other factors had a significant impact on success within the labour market; these included gender, ethnic background and the education level of a graduate’s parents.

Asian graduates were less likely to have worked in non-graduate jobs than other ethnic groups and more likely to have undertaken further study. White students were less likely to have been unemployed than all other racial groups.

Gender wage differences operated across the economy irrespective of sector, university, qualifications on entry to university, category of degree, or occupation. These findings mirror the findings from similar Futuretrack studies carried out in 1995 and 1999. Across the board male graduates earned more than female graduates. The wage premium for men was particularly marked in legal professions where women earned around GBP 8,000 (€9,490 as at 2 April 2013) less than their male counterparts. It was least marked in engineering and technology. The report also found that pay rates were higher for both male and female graduates when they worked mostly with men.

Extracurricular activity during university was associated with better integration into the labour market. This was particularly true for students who had held representative roles while in full-time education. Such graduates were less likely to be unemployed and more likely to be employed in graduate jobs. They were also more likely to be satisfied with their post-graduation careers, jobs and prospects than others.

However, the results showed that the ability to participate in such extracurricular activities was related to socioeconomic background. Around 80% of graduates who had come from a professional or managerial background had engaged in extracurricular activities, 20% as office holders. Among those from routine and manual backgrounds, 67% had taken part in extracurricular activities, 13% as office holders.

Previous stages of the Futuretrack research has identified that some groups face additional barriers to participation in extracurricular activities, such as lack of time, finances or self-confidence. The researchers suggest that exclusion of less privileged students from this aspect of college or university life serves to reinforce existing social structures and may reproduce and heighten disadvantage for such students.


This report confirms that educational and labour market opportunities continue to be related to a graduate’s social background. The link between socioeconomic background and participation in extracurricular activities is of particular concern. This is because it suggests that some aspects of university experience can serve to reinforce disadvantage rather than helping students from less-privileged backgrounds to overcome labour market disadvantage.

The persistence of the gender wage gap is also concerning. Male graduates across the economy enjoy a wage premium which is particularly marked in some sectors. The extent of the wage gap among recent graduates revealed by the research, particularly in professions dominated by women, provides important evidence of structural discrimination against women.


Purcell, K., Elias, P., Atfield, G., Behle, H., Ellison, R., Luchinskaya, D. et al (2012), Futuretrack Stage 4: Transitions into employment, further study and other outcomes, Warwick Institute for Employment Research, Warwick.

Sophie Gamwell, Industrial Relations Research Unit, University of Warwick

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