Degrees of difference: Social inequalities in graduates' job opportunities in the UK and Germany

AQMeN research briefing 6. Cristina Iannelli and Markus Klein, from the Education and Social Stratification research strand, summarise their recent research on the possible factors behind the persistence of unequal labour market outcomes among higher education graduates. In their research, they compared the UK and Germany to examine the role that national institutional systems have in shaping the transition from higher education to the labour market.

Key points

  • Graduates from advantaged family backgrounds are more likely to enter high-paid professional and managerial occupations than graduates from less advantaged family backgrounds and this social advantage is stronger in the UK than in Germany.
  • Social background differences in graduates’ occupations are partly explained by different choices of field of study in both countries. Significant social inequalities remain among UK graduates after taking into account differences in field of study and higher education institution.
  • Five years after graduation, social inequalities in entering the top-level occupations are reduced in both the UK and Germany. They are not statistically significant after taking into account differences in field of study and higher education institution.

Conclusions

This research shows that, at the time of labour market entry, graduates from advantaged social backgrounds are more likely to enter top-level occupations than graduates from less advantaged social backgrounds. This relationship has been found to be stronger in the UK than in Germany. We have argued that the higher competition among graduates and the lack of tight links between higher education qualifications and occupations in the UK leave more space for social inequalities to emerge, especially at the time of labour market entry. Indeed, while graduates’ differences are fully explained by the choice of field of study in Germany, a considerable socio-economic gap remains unexplained in the UK. This possibly hints at a less meritocratic selection process in the UK than in Germany.

The expansion of the HE system has opened up opportunities to gain a degree to people previously excluded but risks beingineffective in promoting social mobility if labour market opportunities are still biased towards the most advantaged social groups.

On the positive side, our findings show that five years after graduation social inequalities in the chances of entering high professional and managerial occupations diminish in both countries. Moreover, the remaining gap is primarily explained by the choice of field of study. This suggests that, in the long-run, employers are more likely to rely on more meritocratic criteria in the allocation of top-level occupations thanks to the availability of information about individuals’ work performance and experience.

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Research briefings provide concise 4-page summaries of our research aimed at policymakers and practitioners.

Date: 
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Authors: 
Iannelli, C. and Klein, M.
Publication Type: 
Research Briefing

Research Strand: