Photograph by the BBC


A shocking insight into the challenges that graduates from ordinary backgrounds are facing today.

In a compelling, yet hard to take, BBC documentary: How To Break Into The Elite, media editor Amol Rajan examines some of society’s elitist values which are unfortunately governing many of today’s higher tiered jobs. This hour long documentary, coincidentally launched during the election of our 20th Eton-educated Prime Minister, conjures up doubt about the education system and employability, all supported with scary stats. Viewers are given a bleak insight into the serious challenges that graduates can expect to face today, as Rajan meets with academics and researchers looking into the matter. 


It’s evident that this subject hits close to home for Rajan, who comes from an ordinary working class background with immigrant parents who instilled the belief that a good education would lead him to achieving whatever he wanted in life. His transition from state school to the University of Cambridge, together with gaining excellent mentors throughout his career, is what he concludes as a lucky example. Rajan states that he, like many of us, was brought up to believe that hard work equates to success, which in turn should mean that education has the power to dissolve the social class divide, right? Unfortunately not. This idyllic ideology seems to have become something of a myth by the time we come to the end of the programme.    


Rajan follows a handful of top grade students from different backgrounds, who uncover some discouraging realities whilst they attempt to land some of the UK’s most desirable jobs. First, we are introduced to Amaan, whose story is perhaps the most prominent - the only one from his Birmingham state school to get into a Russell Group university, which he graduates from with a First-class degree in Economics. Amaan dreams of working in equity sales for an investment bank and proudly states “I knew I didn’t want to be a product of my environment”. Next, we meet Ben - middle to upper class student who was privately educated at Dulwich College and later attended the University of Bristol. Ben’s aim is to work in sports journalism or become “the next Gary Lineker” - a very different path to his parent’s aspirations for him to follow in his dad’s footsteps of being a lawyer. It was clear that Ben was working hard to carve himself out a strong career and make the right contacts for himself, however, unlike Amaan, he benefited from being able to afford to do unpaid work experience - a factor which seemed necessary in boosting his chances of making it in his chosen career. 


When examining the data given, an extremely worrying fact was revealed. Those from privileged backgrounds who attend a Russell Group university and finish with Second-class degrees, are “still more likely to go into top occupations than those from working class backgrounds who have gone to the same universities and got a First” exclaims LSE’s Sam Freidman. Rajan reply: “jeez man”, was our thoughts exactly! This raises the question: what are these organisations actually rewarding, talent or privilege?


As Rajan checks back in on the graduates, it’s disheartening to learn that student Amaan is struggling to land his dream job in the city, and after applying to countless graduate schemes, he decides that a masters at Imperial College London will be his next step. This means entering more debt just so that his level of education can put him on an equal playing field with someone who is technically less qualified, but has the correct ‘polish’ and is from the right social class. When the term ‘polish’ is broken down, it includes aspects such as accent, behaviour and dress style, with the reason behind this being that recruiters don’t want someone who doesn't sound and look expensive representing their company. 


When required to speak in a formal environment and under interview conditions, Amaan crumbles under the pressure, which of course takes any candidate out of the equation. Ben on the other hand, confidently talks his way through the interview without any worries, making it all seem too easy. It’s concluded that someone who is more used to these kind of social situations, and knows how to present themselves by using the right language, is far more prepared for such scenarios, which we of course know is vital today.


With a third of the population today from working class backgrounds, it is almost unbelievable to learn that only 10% of that third are working in elite positions, never mind that they also earn on average 16% less than their more privileged peers. One of the biggest culprits for this is the media industry, an area rife with nepotism. When interviewing Channel 4’s CEO, research was put forward to her showing that only 9% of the broadcaster’s employees were from working class backgrounds. In response to this she gave straight forward and quite frankly honest reasons why this might be the case. The first being that it is an industry which initially requires long periods of freelance work, like many roles within the creative sphere, which means that having supportive financial backing is often necessary. The most interesting, yet shocking reason, is the “set of social codes which are quite knowing”, and cannot be quickly learned or easily replicated if you’re not already in the know, such as the right dress codes, social etiquette and basically just how to fit in. 


This documentary makes it hard not to feel totally helpless when it comes to entering the working world, and angry at the system for being the way it is, raising questions about whether employers are missing out on true talent. Whilst we can pray for the rules of the system to be re-written, there are a few important takeaways to think about. It is always important to stay true to your background and family heritage, but if you want to secure those top jobs, it might be worth learning how to ‘play the game’ - you as an individual can practice tapping into those social ‘ABCs’ through building your own contacts, and attending relevant networking events where possible. Keep up to date with our website for the latest networking events.


For more on this topic click the button below, and skip to 29:09 on the BBC sounds podcast.