I share my sprawling, filthy home in London’s studentsville – Manor House – with two university friends, Hugh and Gary. Both are aspiring lawyers, studying at the London School of Economics. Both are intelligent and hard-working. But Hugh had an upper-class upbringing and education; Gary went to a state school and his parents are unable to offer either financial backing or contacts. Hugh, while on a ludicrously expensive heli-skiing break in Canada, met a leading QC who offered him unpaid work experience this summer. Gary, debt-ridden and contactless, returned to his native suburb for the summer and worked night shifts at Safeway.
So what price meritocracy? This simple tale is illustrative of a Britain where privilege and money are still your ticket to a bright future. In highly competitive job markets, such as the media, arts and politics, graduate job applicants are likely to be rejected if they have failed to gain relevant work experience during or just after their degree courses.
Is Gary any less determined than Hugh? I don’t think so. Gary has demonstrated equal commitment, enduring long, nocturnal hours void of stimulation, but necessary to finance his degree. When employers reject people like him, they are, maybe unwittingly, rejecting his background and not his ability.
I am one of the lucky few. With my parents’ support, I worked unpaid (unless you call £5 a day a wage) at IPPR, a leading political think-tank, for four months. There, I gained invaluable experience and contacts. My former boss, Matthew Taylor, is well aware of the unfair advantage that people like me gain from our moneyed roots. “There is a danger with internships – they can be a fast track in for middle-class kids who can afford to work for nothing for a while.” But, he adds, it is hard for charitable bodies to turn down volunteer help. The IPPR, he says, is making an extra effort to recruit interns from outside London, from lower-income backgrounds and from minority groups, and is organising funding so that it can contribute towards their expenses.
Many graduates leave university with substantial debts. The prospect of then working unpaid in London – where most good placements exist and where optimistic estimates of minimum living costs for a year are £8,000 – is extremely daunting. Only the rich, or rather, the children of the rich will escape this debt trap.
It is in everyone’s interests to get the best people for the best jobs. The status quo is damaging, not just to those disheartened bright young things who hit a glass ceiling – not of ability but of social class and parental wealth – but also to the country, whose potential for growth and success is undermined when those who could be great are indirectly stopped in their tracks.
This reality sits uneasily with Tony Blair’s proclamations that Britain is set to become a meritocratic society and with our growing belief that this is becoming a land of equality of opportunity. There seems an unwillingness to acknowledge that the traditional elite, loosely defined as those with money and contacts, and, by association, their offspring, are alive and well.
Blair misses the point when he talks of achieving a meritocracy through opening up higher education to all. Although this is a worthy goal, and an essential precondition of a meritocracy, the leap from graduating to entering employment must also be changed.
Blair must strive to ensure that the boy who works in Safeway is not cast aside, in favour of his more experienced peer. They are equally able and should be treated as such. Until then, his dream – “to create real upward mobility, a society that is open and genuinely based on merit and the equal worth of all” – will remain just a dream.