Changing the game for ‘elitist’ Britain

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.

2 Comments

  1. Robert Garner
    Posted 03/09/2014 at 13:04 | Permalink

    It has long been true that Britain’s political elite is dominanted by those educated at public school and Oxbridge, although less so now than it used to be. The problem with the political elite approach is that it arguably does not tell us very much at all about the exercise of power. Common sense tells us that political elites exist, but their existence is not necessarily incompatible with a fragmented, pluralistic power structure. To demonstrate the existence of a ruling elite or class we have to establish also that there is a coherent, conscious and conspiratorial group which dominates decision making. In other words, establishing the existence of a ruling elite or class requires us to ask how far do elite groups share a common set of values and beliefs which is distinct from the rest of society? And, secondly, how far do the aims of elite groups prevail? It is by no means clear that either of these conditions exist in a liberal democracy such as Britain, although the extent to which they do should, in principle be capable of being researched.

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    Malcolm Whitmore Reply:

    Robert,
    I cannot agree that to prove that an elite exists it is necessary to identify a coherent ,conscious and conspiratorial group. It is very clear to see that they exercise that power in the interests of the elite.We all know who the elite are and we know what power they have from their private school education and networking. There is no need to waste time proving it,the issue is that we need to find ways of reducing the class divide in the UK.
    If you compare our divisions with the USA you find a much lower barrier to the non elite classes,I guess that this is a result of them all being in the same boat when they emigrated to the USA .
    The consequences of our class dominated society reduces the nation”s quality of life and economic performance in addition to perpetuating great injustice.

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  2. Martin Coffey
    Posted 03/09/2014 at 12:28 | Permalink

    Whilst I agree that people chose people like themselves and there is an elitism towards Oxbridge in the UK, I also believe there are more factors at play. In many cases people will select someone to fill a role who they either know themselves or with whom they have a common acquaintance.
    This may come down to the employer feeling it is a “safer bet” to take on someone for whom they have evidence of competence, not just peper (cv, application form etc…)data. When I worked as an Occcupational Psychologist, I too worked on selection panels with employers who have had “no clue as to what a job on offer entailed”. This of course triggers a wide range of insecurities, such as “I must not lose face in front of the staff”, “I cannot afford to take on a ‘bad hire’ as de-selecting and re-hiring is too expensive” etc… Therefore, (quite naturally?) the employer will be strongly predisposed to go with any sources of perceived safety, such as knowing the candidate or knowing someone who knows the candidate. As I recall, it is estimated 60% of jobs in the UK are found through “networking”.
    Another factor is what I would call social context awareness. People from “priviledged backgrounds” will of course already “speak the language” and be aware of the mytriad of non-verbal cues involved in communication within an employment sector, or at a given “level” in a hierarchically structured organisation. (Argyle (1972) found that when we communicate only 7% of what we say is communicated by the words we use). People from other social groupings have to learn these cues along the way, setting them at a disadvantage, the extent of which is dependent on their social acuity.

    [Reply]

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