Do top professions favour the rich?

July 21, 2009

Professions such as law, medicine and journalism have a “closed shop mentality” and are increasingly open only to those from affluent backgrounds, a report into social mobility says.

Former Labour government minister Alan Milburn, who chaired the study on widening access to top professions, said that young people need better career advice to raise their aspirations and give them greater confidence. Mr Milburn told the BBC: “We have raised the glass ceiling but I don’t think we have broken through it yet.

“What we have got to do is open up these opportunities so they are available for everybody.”

The Fair Access to the Professions report also recommended that universities take into account the social background of their intake, criticised internships and work placements as acting as an easy way in for affluent and well-connected young people and called for increased monitoring of the background of those entering certain professions.

What do you think? Are these measures likely to increase social mobility? Is it right to look at a person’s background when considering them for a university place or professional position?


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What concerned me most about Mr Milburn’s attitude on Breakfast was that he appeared unable to conceive of a world in which not everybody aspired to be a lawyer or journalist.

Surely what we really want (particularly if Mr Milburn ascribes to Labour’s traditional goal of raising the floor and not the ceiling), is to encourage people to aspire to the real top “professions,” in design and engineering for example, which while they may not have venerable Chartered Associations and the like, would at least allow the country to afford luxuries such as more lawyers and journalists.

A mindset which says that gaining the right collection of letters after one’s name is more important than making a positiive contribution to society is surely more part of the problem than part of the solution?

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

Well, the first question to ask is how many “natives” are still making up the body of those hallowed professions. There is a strong influx of highly qualified foreign labour active in the top law firms and investment banks whereas the accountancy profession has remained a more traditional British preserve. So changing the access to school facilities will not quite prove to be a panacea.

British education is considered to be very good, yet most of its undergraduates struggle to make the cut when compared to their Asian, US or European peers. Postgraduate students, however, do markedly better due to the applied research base the UK has traditionally fostered. Quality of education is therefore paramount, and it’s very obvious from all rankings published that the UK still can’t provide a decent education to the majority of its youngsters. Again, this will not improve no matter how good the access to extracurricular activities.

And, finally, in a globalised world the professions will follow the money – i.e. applied sciences, manufacturing, trading etc. This bodes ill for all the professions who already relocate (and recruit in) Asia and the Middle East. Whose bread you eat, whose word you speak or in this case whose accounting rules and legal systems you will increasingly have to adopt/comply with.

Posted by Jean Debuy | Report as abusive

Is this any real surprise to anyone? Certainly not to me. If you want a reason why, we only have to look society as a whole. For those coming from the lowest levels of society, there is little hope for them from the day they are plonked in front of day-time TV for the morning whilst their parents rake in the benefits. Why would you choose to spend 5-7 years of your life working and studying hard to attain the relevant qualifications when you can follow in the family footsteps and be paid by the state to have a few children to plonk in front of the TV, just as you were 16 years previously?

Those who come from the higher levels of society are expected to work hard by their parents, are expected to study and are pushed to achieve – to strive to better themselves. This is done from an early age, not at University or even at public school. These people in the top jobs have been nurtured in learning from the moment they were born. They have gone to primary school already being able to read and do basic maths and have flourished because they have support behind them in the form of parents who want them to succeed.

Until it becomes socially unacceptable and more importantly financially untenable to sit your child in front of the TV/Playstaton whilst you (and your partner occasionally) sit on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle and Judge Judy, children from the lowest income families will always struggle. Instead of chastising the more comfortable for their success, maybe we should ask them how they have managed it and, God forbid, learn from them!!!

Posted by Adam K | Report as abusive

I think it’s partly the fault of the schools. I went to a comprehensive school on a council estate. When it came to careers advice, their main aim was to get the brightest students into engineering.

I think that this attitude was common amongst comprehensive schools of the era. Whereas presumably the private schools knew they were aiming to get their top pupils into law, medicine & finance.

So what do we find – engineers are seriously underpaid compared with law, medicine & finance. Is this because engineering is full of people from less priveliged backgrounds who accept their lower salaries; or is it because we’ve got too many engineers; or is it that there’s now loads of engineers in India and China?

In any case, the push of the comprehensive schools was clearly misguided. Or perhaps they knew that it was futile attempting to guide their students into the professions of the rich – where there almost certainly were mechanisms in place to scupper the hopes of less priveliged students.

I kind of agree with Alan Milburn that something has to change.

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive

Adam, one of the best comments (without doubt the most accurate)I have read on this theme.

Unfotunately it cuts straight to the heart of the problem and therefore denies the liberal academic community/lobby groups and hangers on the chance to make £millions debating red herrings and other time (money) wasting diversions so needless to say it will be slated by liberals as being too black and white, divisive, and biased against the right of anyone who does not want to make an effort.

Posted by nick | Report as abusive

Daniel – amen to that. To which you can add that the attraction of an AVERAGE salary of ¬£120,000 per annum for a GP, who has had to compete and win only once in their life – to get into medical school – means that we should not be surprised that increasingly medicine attracts those whose priority is money and security rather than a vocation. The same has long been true of the law, and Investment (nee “merchant”) banking. The late 60’s and early70’s gave us another present too – the career politician, seeking maximum publicity and exposure by “leveraging” even their days in student politics. Many of them now hold high office. Many will walk away if the real monetary benefit is exposed to public scrutiny.

Yes I agree in part with Milburn, but you need to ask why Britain has so many foreign doctors, lawyers, even more than a few politicians – Hain etc – in position in these highly remunerated roles. This reflects abysmal social and educational planning at every level, but most important, in medicine it reflects the fiercely defended crony dominated bastions of the profession. If a street kid from Brixton manages to enter those portals, he or she would have climbed Everest compared with the brisk walk undertaken by his or her peers in that institution.

The social and educational environment which apply to the majority of ordinary kids in this country marginalise their chances of focus and thereby success from the first day of their education. The only voices I have ever heard raised in opposition to such views come from those who would preserve their system of privilege.

To find corroboration you have only to look at the number of shared and part time GP jobs that now exist. You could be forgiven for suggesting that they are twice over-remunerated, and if trained in the UK, the negotiators of their last contract have effectively diluted taxpayer investment in their education by 50%.

Posted by dave | Report as abusive