The expansion of higher education in the UK has been driven by a political desire to increase economic growth and to promote social mobility at the same time by drawing more graduates from a larger pool of talent. Yet evidence shows that despite the growing number of people graduating from university, social inequalities persist in job opportunities for young people.
Comparing the situation in the UK and Germany is a useful way of understanding the ways through which graduates from higher social backgrounds get better jobs when they finish university. The two countries differ in the structure of their education systems and in the strength of the link between education and the labour market.
Germany has a highly selective education system based on early selection into vocational and academic education tracks and strong links between education and the world of work. A small proportion of secondary school students, from academic schools only, enter the higher education system: only 30% of people at the typical graduation age graduate from university in Germany compared to 55% in the UK. For those who graduate, the transition to the labour market tends to be smooth and their qualifications tend to closely match their occupations.
In the UK, the education systems are less strongly differentiated and higher education is more inclusive. But links between higher education qualifications and occupational positions are relatively loose. This means that the capacity of educational qualifications to indicate applicants’ competence tends to be weaker in the UK than in Germany. Issues of over-supply of graduates and skills mismatch have developed in more recent years.
Social inequalities in job markets
These institutional differences affect social inequalities in graduate jobs. The German education system with its strong vocational component – especially its apprenticeship system – is often considered as a model to follow by other countries, including the UK. But much research has shown that the German system is also very unequal because less advantaged pupils are more likely to be diverted away from higher education into vocational tracks.
In our forthcoming study in the European Sociological Review, we compared graduates’ occupational outcomes in the UK and Germany by using data from a European survey on tertiary graduates, the “Reflex” study.
Our findings confirm that UK graduates are a more socially heterogeneous group than German graduates: students with less-educated parents (our social-background measure) enter higher education more frequently in the UK than in Germany. But graduates’ chances of achieving professional and managerial occupations in their first job are more strongly dependent on their social background in the UK than in Germany.
These differences in graduate occupations between those from different social backgrounds may be explained by differences in higher education choices and experiences. Our results showed that the social gap in entering highly-paid professional and managerial occupations is partly explained by differences in a student’s choice of subject and university, more so in Germany than in the UK. Significant social inequalities still remain among UK graduates (but not German graduates) after taking these differences into account.
The impact of family background
Compared to Germany, our results suggest there is a less meritocratic job selection process in the UK. Family resources are likely to be more important in the UK than in Germany because competition among graduates is strong and there is an absence of tight links between education and the labour market. In such a situation, graduates’ families may provide useful networks as well as social skills that help those from more privileged backgrounds acquire better occupations.
But these gaps even out after time. When analysing occupations five years after graduation, we found that the social inequalities in entering high professional and managerial occupations are reduced in both the UK and Germany. At this point, they are primarily explained by differences in university choices – particularly in subject choices. This suggests that more meritocratic criteria in the job market emerge once employers have direct information about individuals’ work performance and experience.
Is Germany more meritocratic?
On the whole, German society is less socially mobile than UK society. But the mechanisms by which social inequalities permeate through into graduates’ chances of getting a good job are different.
In Germany, social inequalities are transmitted mainly via education, both through early selection into an academic or vocational track and through the choice of subject a student makes. In the UK, inequalities are only partly transmitted via education with family playing a larger part.
This suggests that policies in the UK promoting the expansion of higher education to more disadvantaged groups may not be enough to promote social mobility if the job market does not operate on a purely meritocratic basis. For this to to happen, an essential condition is for stronger links to be established between educational qualifications and occupational positions.