The BBC programme ‘How to Break into the Elite’ struck a chord with people like me, and possibly many others, this week. It was painful to watch as it exposed a raw nerve that many of us have ignored for a long time. The idea of perception and connections overriding ability and talent oozed across the screen as the programme developed its main thesis. The conclusion from ace broadcaster, Matthew Wright (formally of the Wright Show on Chanel 5) that “guns” and “revolution” might be the solution was not a flippant suggestion. That the BBC aired what could be seen as an incitement to violence seemed incredible. But there it was.
‘How to Break into the Elite’ was aired by BBC2 on Monday evening of this week. Its content will reverberate across the social mobility landscape. The gif accompanying this above has a quotation from the programme that suggests that the gap between the graduate jobs available and the number of graduates was the "dashed hopes of an entire generation". It also represents a reservoir of anger that must accompany the incredible debt burden of those graduates that might feel duped upon seeing the programme. It is available on BBC iPlayer for some time and is worth catching up with if you missed it. But it should come with a warning. I actually felt physically sick less than half way in when confronted with the idea that graduate candidates for top graduate jobs were expected to be “polished”. I felt I had to stop watching at that point and came back to the programme the next day only to find that it became worse.
The impressively articulate Amol Rajan probably set out to provoke and even shock the viewers. He declared his relatively humble background as a son of immigrants from India from the outset. He went onto Cambridge University and a successful career in the media. But he claims that this was more a matter of luck. I could relate to his background as a son of immigrants from Ireland that ended up in Coventry towards the end of WW2. They came armed with only their wit and an extraordinary capacity for hard work and entered a society that offered hope. By 1945 they were in a world being constructed by the radical reforming Labour government of Attlee, Bevan and Ellen Wilkinson, the Education Secretary who sadly succumbed to illness in 1947. A graduate of Manchester University, she came from working class roots and raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15 years old. This was a huge step that opened many doors; even it if did mean students like me still had to take their O-levels a year early in 1972 to survive the system that was stacked against us.
Hard work or privilege?
The primary aim of the programme was to explore the questions, is working hard enough? Or are your chances in life still determined by where you come from? There was a two-pronged approach to these central questions. Firstly, in following recent graduates who tried to break into so called “elite graduate jobs”, the stark reality of prejudice emerged. Secondly, by asking academic experts in the field what they thought, there was an even starker confirmation of the barriers facing some graduates. The optimism of two obviously talented individuals, Amaan and Elvis, was balanced by their less than optimal experience at the hands of the ‘city recruiters’. Amaan, from Birmingham and sporting a first class degree in Economics from elite Nottingham University, was still confident towards the end; despite little success and having resorted to an expensive Master’s degree. Others with lesser ability appeared to have leap frogged him on the back of ‘connections’.
Sickening observations: The damage done by perceptions and polish.
This is where the programme took a sickening and sinister turn. Expert Louise Ashley of Royal Holloway College in the University of London spoke of the overriding need for candidates for top jobs to be “polished”. She spoke with a seriousness and sincerity that must have grown from her detailed study of the system. Although her personal background remained behind the scenes, as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management she spoke of her research conclusions with authority (even poise and polish to be fair). Although not divulged in the programme, she was advisor to the Social Mobility Commission between 2015 and 2016 on the non-educational barriers to the elite professions, including law, accountancy and investment banking. It seems that the power of perception and recognition of ‘polish’ trumps other attributes in these sectors.
She was followed by the other main expert, Sam Friedman of the LSE, who reinforced the same notions. Again, his personal background remained out of view as he spoke with authority about social barriers, “Those from privileged backgrounds who get 2.2 degrees- second class degrees – are still more likely to go into a top occupation that those from working class backgrounds who went to the same universities and got a first”. The graphic with it was simple butpowerful. Indeed, Friedman is a powerful influencer himself. Since graduating from Edinburgh University in Sociology and Politics back in 2007, he has made a career of exposing the social elite system in the UK. He has advised the Sutton trust, the Social Mobility Commission, where he currently serves on the board (see TEFS 18th June 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’, and government. His book from earlier this year, co-authored with Daniel Laurison, ‘The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged’ sets out his stall and offers no hiding place for the established and privileged elite.
The scientist's conundrum.
Whereas Amol Rajan declared that his luck in his career progression was down to the Cambridge connection, I doubted if that would have much benefitted me or scientists like me in the same way. The main thrust of the programme was into the midriff of professions such as investment banking, finance, accounting and law. This bypasses the world of Science and Technology that is the real driver of our economy. My ‘claim to fame’ might be in declining an offer of a PhD position in the Cambridge University Biochemistry department back in 1977. The science, alongside the supervision, were the only criteria I used. So I opted instead to go to Cardiff and into a dynamic Microbiology group and there have been no regrets.
My experience has been that the Science world is inhabited by people from many different backgrounds. It is very international and communications span the globe on technical and philosophical approaches to understanding nature and developing new technology. My observations have been that all laboratories are the same and have the same problems wherever you look; from the EU to Japan to Russia to the USA and to Canada. When it comes to meetings, discussion and analytical discourse, the proceedings are generally class, race and gender blind. We all see the same evidence; as this after all reflects the natural world that we study. However, as soon as one steps outside the arena of Science, and into anything to do with university politics and management, the irrational class perceptions crawl out from under the rocks. This is the conundrum we face as scientists.
Revolution, guns and a solution.
The theme of injustice gathered pace when Matthew Wright, formally host of the Channel 5 morning show ‘The Wright Stuff”, was interviewed. Ex-employee of the show, Amol Rajan, was genuinely perplexed by the idea that he got the job because of his Cambridge degree. Wright indicated that the Channel 5 bosses limited interviewees at the time to those from Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities. He seemed to be the one that fitted the description of what Wright called a “normal geezer” and got a job that Wright himself would not have been interviewed for.
This spurred Wright onto further ideas that took a very sinister turn. To the suggestion that we need to help students from “ordinary backgrounds” onto elite jobs through the “need to instil them with confidence” the reply was, “Yes or give them guns. Because I don’t think the elite will ever give way, unless they’ve got guns. Revolution”. The nervous laugh from Amol Rajan betrayed a genuine fear that he could be right.
The idea is as old as human society is inherently unfair. But he was speaking of a violent response that would not be in the spirit of Rousseau and his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality from 1754. That discourse unfortunately fuelled the French revolution that he never lived to see. He would be spinning in his grave at this point. However, the observations that senior military, judiciary, senior civil servants and government are mostly privately educated does fit the fortress mentality of a privileged ‘elite’. It is of course well known by the elite that a significant number of less privileged people have been expertly trained in the use of a range of modern weapons. Many have been then pitched out into an unequal society that could be seen to be betraying them. Thus, one of Boris Johnson’s first acts has been to create a new Office for Veterans to support ex-military personnel throughout their lives. In an increasingly unfair society, this seems a smart move by one of the Oxford elite.
Having lived in Belfast for 37 years through dangerous times and beyond, the suggestion of guns is reckless and crass. Social injustice did prevail there, but armed insurrection and conflict merely crushed working families. As casualties rose fast, it drove people away. Those of us that stayed on to try to work to rebuild after the Good Friday Agreement, that still holds for now, are horrified by the idea. The BBC should reflect upon the dangers of broadcasting any ‘call to arms’ as a solution and where it might lead us.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics