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Milburn report: Professional careers are still socially exclusive

A report on access to professional careers, published last week by Rt. Hon Alan Milburn, the Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, argues that:
  • the golden opportunity for a social mobility dividend – as a result of professional job growth – is at risk of being squandered
  • there is social engineering at the top of the professions and little evidence of change in social intakes at the bottom
  • too little is being done, and it is time to dramatically increase efforts.
Commenting on his findings, Mr. Milburn said:
The question posed by this report is whether the growth in professional employment is creating a social mobility dividend for our country. The short answer is not yet. The general picture seems to be of mainly minor changes in the social composition of the professions – this is social engineering on a grand scale. If social mobility is to become anything other than a pipedream, the professions will have to open up.
In his role as the Government’s Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, Alan Milburn has been evaluating what is happening on poverty and mobility in Britain and what contribution the Government, employers, universities and others are making to tackle these issues.

His first report, Fair Access to Professional Careers: a Progress Report, looks at the opportunities available to individuals from different backgrounds to enter and progress in professional careers. It considers how these opportunities have changed since 2009, when Mr. Milburn issued a call for action to employers and Government to tackle barriers to fair access.

The report sets out the professional employment market as the fastest growing, best paid and most resilient sector; therefore one with great potential to support social mobility. The professions will account for approximately 83% of all new jobs in Britain in the next decade. In the middle of a prolonged economic downturn that has heightened public concerns about inequality and unfairness, this is a source for optimism about the prospects for social progress in the future.

However, this opportunity is at risk of being squandered, because the practical barriers that prevent fair access to professional careers have not yet been broken down. These barriers include poor careers advice, limited work experience opportunities, non-transparent internships, antiquated recruitment processes and inflexible entry routes.

The report looks in depth at the accessibility of four particular sectors: law; medicine; the media; and politics. There is evidence of a galvanised effort on the part of many organisations to improve access – and the report highlights examples of good practice. Some signs of progress are:
  • In 2009, only four of the Times top 100 Employers accepted non-graduate entrants into professional careers. Today around 50% offer non-graduate entry points
  • The Government has taken forward some of the recommendations in the 2009 report, such as producing a code of conduct for fair internships
  • All sectors have demonstrated considerable investment in schemes to improve access
  • The civil service has seen some impressive change. Since 2009 the proportion of senior civil servants who have been privately educated has fallen from 45% to 27% today.
However, there is a varied commitment across sectors to making a real difference:
  • The legal profession is starting to make efforts, but its progress needs to accelerate
  • Medicine lags behind other professions both in its focus and the priority it accords these issues, and needs a step change in approach
  • Journalism has had a dramatic shift to a greater degree of social exclusivity. The media industry on the whole does not seem to take the issue of fair access seriously
  • Political parties continue to select parliamentary candidates who are disproportionately drawn from better-off backgrounds, limiting the pool of talent representing the country.
  • In terms of policy, while the Government has shown good intentionality, it needs to be more holistic in its approach and ensure better co-ordinated efforts.
This is reflected in the fact that, at the top especially, the professions remain dominated by a social elite, representing social engineering on a grand scale:
  • of 114 High Court Judges, 83 attended private schools, 82 went to Oxbridge, 22 to other Russell Group universities and just three to other UK universities
  • of the country’s top journalists, 54% were privately educated with a third graduating from Oxbridge
  • privately educated MPs comprised 30% of the total in 1997 but after the 2010 election now comprise 35% with just 13 private schools providing 10% of all MPs.
Data collected for the report indicates this trend is set to continue, as the next generation of our country’s lawyers, doctors and journalists are likely to be a mirror image of previous generations:
  • 41% of law undergraduates were from the highest socio-economic groups and only 21% came from the lowest groups
  • 49% of journalism students come from the highest groups and 14% from the lowest
  • 57% of medical students came from the top groups and only 7% from the bottom, with 22% of all medical and dental undergraduates from private schools.
The report makes 30 recommendations to increase progress. In summary:
  • Efforts to raise aspirations in schools are too sporadic and too unspecific. They need to become universal and better co-ordinated, for example through a national mentoring scheme
  • Too many employers recruit from too narrow a range of universities and regions. They need to widen their net
  • Work experience and internships are still a lottery even as they become a key part of the formal professional labour market.  They need to be treated as such, including through a formal kitemarking scheme
  • Selection processes and data collection – the foundation stones for making progress – are too haphazard.  They need to be given much more serious attention
  • Entry to the professions has begun to be diversified but the graduate grip on the labour market is still strong.  There needs to be a far bigger drive to open the professions.
The report concludes that, with a genuine national effort, the next decade can be a golden era when it comes to opening up opportunities in UK society. Achieving this will require far more work on the part of the professions. Mr Milburn’s next two reports will argue it also requires work on the part of universities and the Government.

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