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'What are you going to do with a degree in Classics / English / Maths?' is a common question, often from parents, and particularly when compared with apparently more vocational degree subjects. The question becomes particularly loaded when the prospective student is from a non-traditional background, and perhaps is the first in their family to consider going to university.
Analysis of the first career destinations of the Oxford undergraduates who left in 2017, shows that there is no statistically significant difference in career outcome associated with any of seven different measures of social background. This result is contrary to the national picture; it also confirms the result that we found for the Oxford leavers of 2015.
By career outcome, we used three measures: the proportion of students unemployed and looking for work, the proportion in a 'graduate-level' job, and the average starting salary. While there are, of course, other measures of career success, including satisfaction, happiness, feeling of doing something worthwhile, and intellectual challenge, all of these are difficult to quantify – so we use what is widely and reasonably reliably available. The career measure is taken from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey of all leavers, six months after leaving. Again, we all recognise that higher education can equip graduates with life skills – and surveying five, 10 or 20 years later would be more helpful. As an aside, the DLHE is now changing to a Graduate Outcomes Survey, taken 15 months after leaving.
By social background, we used seven measures: two post code assessments (ACORN, a postcode-based tool that categorises the UK's population by level of socio-economic advantage; and POLAR, a similar tool that measures how likely young people are to participate in higher education based on where they live); ethnic background (black and minority ethnicity (BME) and white); school type (state and independent), Oxford's 'Widening Participation' (WP) flag (which is used to determine students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds); Oxford bursary holders; and household income (£0-£16,000, £16,000-£25,000 etc.).
Effectively we found no association between social background and initial outcome. While there are some differences in starting salary for some groups (for example, a higher proportion of BME students than of white students, start work in higher paying sectors such as banking and consulting), once the analysis controls for the industry sectors each group enter, that difference is not significant.We analysed whether there was any statistically significant difference in the three outcome measures (unemployment, graduate-level work, average salary) for the different populations of students on all seven measures. For example, BME versus white students, state versus independent school students, WP-flag versus non-WP-flag students, and so on. We ran the analysis for the whole University of Oxford and for each division (Medical Sciences; Maths, Physical & Life Sciences; Social Sciences; and Humanities) separately.
In particular, it's worth noting that there is no difference in outcome for students from households with incomes below £16,000 per year versus everyone else.
This is a very welcome and reassuring result of which Oxford can be rightly proud. The University can confidently tell all prospective students, regardless of their school type, ethnic group, postcode, or household income, that their career prospects are not significantly affected by their background.
At Oxford, the answer to the opening question, 'What are you going to do with a degree in Classics / English / Maths?' is 'almost anything.'
Jonathan Black is the director of Oxford University's Careers Service.