Jonathan Black, Director of the University of Oxford Careers Service, reports on new data that reveal social background makes no significant difference to Oxford undergraduates’ employment outcomes.
It is often stated that young people from more privileged backgrounds will earn more than disadvantaged students. However, recent analysis at the Careers Service has once again highlighted that any Oxford undergraduate student, from any social background, has an equal chance of a positive employment outcome.
However social background is measured, we found no statistically significant difference in unemployment rate or being in a “graduate and professional level” job. This remarkable finding underlines the levelling effect of the Oxford undergraduate degree.
It’s not a new finding; we’ve analysed the data twice before, for those who left in 2015 and in 2017 – but that was using the destination data collected six months after leaving. This latest set of data, the 2018 leavers, using the new Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) results asked them about their employment situation 15 months after they left, so in September 2019.
It’s difficult to define social background so we took six different measures. Two are national postcode measures, ACORN and POLAR3, which respectively assess the wealth and the propensity of people from that postcode to go to higher education. We used two internal measures, those on Oxford Bursaries and those with a Widening Participation (WP) flag. And finally, we looked at their ethnic background (white vs Black and Minority Ethnic) and their school type (state vs independent).
None of these measures show clear divisions between those from poor and those from rich social backgrounds, but we thought that if we looked at each and all of them, we could be reasonably confident of the results.
We defined a positive employment outcome as the proportion unemployed and looking for work (lower is obviously better…) and the proportion in “Graduate or Professional level” work as categorised by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
We don’t have as much data to work with as before; the GOS only surveyed about 55% of leavers, whereas the previous surveys collected data from 80%. And if we want to know about school type, we are limited to UK students only (about 85% of all undergraduates). Finally, we can use only those records with all the employment information. In the end we have good data for about 1,700 out of approximately 3,300 leavers.
What did we find? That unemployment rate is not associated with any measure of social background. For the statisticians, we ran a chi-squared test of the two populations (flagged and not flagged); as an example, 4.3% of state school students and 4.6% of independent school students were unemployed and looking for work. p = 0.8 so not significant at the p = 0.05 level – we can be 95% confident of the result. And the same is true for all other measures.
We broke the analysis down to the academic divisional level of the University: Humanities; Medical sciences, Mathematical, Physical, Engineering and Life Sciences; and Social Sciences. And the answer was the same: no statistically significant differences on any of the six measures in each division.
We ran the analyses for the whole University and for each division for the Graduate and Professional Level work measure – same result: no statistically significant difference based on background (except one borderline case in social sciences for the WP flag).
We did look at another measure, average salaries – remembering that these salaries are self-declared by the graduate and not audited. It seems that overall the average salaries are a bit higher for those from unflagged social backgrounds, but any differences are NOT statistically significant. And anyway, there is a big difference in the industries that people from different backgrounds go into; for example, 12% of state school students went into teaching compared with 8% from independent schools, whereas for financial services, the difference is reversed: 4% from state school and 9% from independent school. Financial services pays more than teaching, which is why the overall averages are different.
Careers and employment is about far more than salaries; much more important to look at being in a job, and in one where graduates can thrive. On these measures, it’s rewarding and encouraging to see that Oxford has levelled the playing field.
We also note that these data are for students who started in Oxford in 2014 and 2015, when the intake was considerably less diverse than in the past two years. We’ll continue to repeat this analysis as the more diverse recent cohorts move into employment, not that we think the pattern will change but with larger numbers in the flagged and unflagged groups, the statistics will be even more reliable.