By Dr Doris Ruth Eikhof, School of Management
Dr Doris Ruth Eikhof, University of Leicester School of Management discusses the findings from the latest report stating that the UK is ‘deeply elitist’.
Upper class elites rule the UK, holding key positions in politics, business, law, media, education and arts and culture. A report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission released this week documented that what the country does and thinks is determined by those educated in private schools and Oxbridge, an ‘old boys network’ that working class men and women find it difficult to break into. Shocking, yes, but hardly new and hardly surprising. As Niall MacKenzie of Strathclyde Business School commented, ‘in other news, water has been discovered to be wet.’ Half a century of initiatives to broaden access to education, arts and culture, and thus jobs and careers, have aimed to reduce elitism in the UK. Some of those initiatives even make extremely successful TV viewing: Channel 4’s ‘Educating Yorkshire’, for instance, made the nation’s heart go out to youngsters struggling for a decent start in life. Identification with the working class is so de rigeur in Britain that the middle classes especially do not dare speak their own name.
With all that initiative, empathy and attention, how come Britain is still, as the report puts it, ‘deeply elitist’? A key problem is that those who decide about appointments and promotions favour candidates who look and talk like them, who went to the same schools and universities or who are friends and friends of friends. That, too, is neither a new nor a surprising finding. But what is less looked at is why decision makers rely on class, Oxbridge degrees and personal networks for recruitment. They do so because, both consciously and unconsciously, they regard them as signs that an applicant will do a good job. One’s class, education and social capital send ‘signals’ to a potential employer about skills and productivity. These signals become all the more important the more costly a wrong recruitment decision would be. Hiring the wrong candidate for call centre position no 87 is less of a problem than hiring the wrong senior judge or cabinet minister.
To “break open” Britain’s elite we need to make it less necessary for decision makers to rely on class, Oxbridge degrees and personal networks for recruitment. We need to make sure that those who decide on recruitment know what skills are actually required. As an HR Officer I have worked with countless line managers who had no idea what exactly the job on offer entailed – and who promptly defaulted to signals that reproduce elites. We need to have an education system that really educates for what life after school and university requires. The UK suffers from a huge skills mismatch between what employers want and what the education system delivers. We need to make sure that our university degrees correctly signal which skills a graduate brings. It is a great irony that in order to widen access to higher education the UK has ended up with such a cacophony of degrees that employers, unable to make sense of it all, default to easy signals such as an Oxbridge degree. Will these three steps forward be easy to make; will they eradicate elitism altogether? Unlikely. But they will go a good deal further than trying to get working class graduates into upper class networks. We don’t need to break the networks, we need to remove the incentives to rely on networks.