Report Overview

Traditionally, there has been a focus on the academic side of university. But with more young people studying for degrees in an increasingly competitive job market, it is now becoming clear that a degree alone is not enough for young people to succeed in the world of work.

Even if two young people go to the same university and achieve the same degree classification, if one of them is from a higher socio-economic background, they will be more likely to gain a top job, and also to earn a higher salary, than their equally academically qualified peers from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

This report, authored by Rebecca Montacute, with Erica Holt-White and Alice Gent, looks at a range of activities offered at university, to examine how well they develop employability and essential life skills in students, as well as whether access to such opportunities differs by socio-economic background.

The research in this report was carried out before the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. It is accompanied by a brief which looks at the impact of Covid-19 on the university experience.


The percentage of grads who said university did not give them the necessary skills for the jobs they wanted.

1 in 5

20% of working-class grads could not afford to undertake a work placement.


About a third of students who did not take part in student societies could not due to paid work commitments.

Key Findings


Students take part in a wide range of activities outside of their core academic work at university. For recent graduates, carrying out paid work at university was common (79%), as was participation in student societies (61%). Many had also taken part in work experience (43%),but only a small proportion (12%) studied abroad during their degrees.

• However, participation differs substantially by socio-economic background. Just over half (52%) of recent graduates from working class backgrounds took part in student societies, compared to almost two thirds (64%) of better-off students. There is a similar gap in participation for work experience placements (36% vs 46%) and study abroad (9% vs 13%).

• Paid work is equally common for students from all socio-economic backgrounds, but graduates from working class backgrounds were more likely to have worked alongside periods of study, including in their final year, during term time and during exam periods.


Development of essential life skills at university

• While many graduates felt their university course had helped them to develop life skills such as communication (62%) and resilience (53%), fewer than half (43%) felt it had developed their motivation, and less than a quarter (24%) felt it helped them to develop leadership skills.

Many of the skills not developed well by a student’s course were developed by other activities, although there was a great deal of variation between them. This variability in skills development across different activities shows the importance of students taking part in a wide range of pursuits during their degree.


Barriers to participation

The most common reason students did not take part in work experience was because their university or course did not give them an opportunity to do so (39%). This proportion was higher for graduates of Pre and Post 1992 institutions (41% at both, compared to 36% of graduates from Russell Group universities).

Cost was often a barrier for working class graduates. 1 in 5 (20%) of working class graduates who did not take up a work experience placement during university could not afford to, for example because of a need to spend the time in better paid employment or due to the cost of commuting. This compared to 15% of better-off graduates citing the same barrier.

A third (32%) of those who did not take part in extra-curricular activities could not due to paid work commitments.

34% of students reported they were living at home with their family while attending university, with consequent impacts on their experience of university life. Two thirds (66%) of those living away from home took part in extra-curricular activities, compared to 38% of those in their family home. Students from working class backgrounds were substantially more likely to be living at home during term.


How well do universities develop employability skills?

Over a quarter of graduates (29%) did not feel that university had given them the skills they needed to get hired in the jobs they wanted after graduation. This figure was higher for students from working class backgrounds (33% vs 27% of better off students), and students at Post-1992 (32%) and Pre-1992 (29%) institutions, compared to those who attended universities in the Russell Group (25%).

While 52% of those from better-off backgrounds felt they had sufficiently developed skills in finding the right jobs and opportunities. However, a far lower proportion (44%) of their peers from poorer backgrounds said the same.


For universities and student unions

Universities should help students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to access paid internships and work experiences, including through targeted provision of information and advice, along with financial support. They should encourage students from widening participation backgrounds to apply for such opportunities and look at providing additional support (e.g., bursaries or grants) to poorer students where needed, to enable them to take up these opportunities.

Universities should look at embedding opportunities to develop employability and life skills within students’ courses. Doing so can help to ensure all students have equal access to these types of opportunities, rather than reserved for those with more support and confidence to be pro-active. This can be done through a wide range of activities, such as sandwich years, service learning and employability modules.

Universities and student unions should explore and tackle barriers that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds face in taking part in extra-curricular activities. These include affordability, not having had the opportunity to take part in these activities previously, and a lack of knowledge on the benefits such activities can have for employability. Additional support could be put in place to help students overcome these barriers.

• Universities and student unions, particularly at institutions where disadvantaged students are significantly under-represented, should actively work to create environments which respect and promote diversity, including by socio-economic background. Strong action should be taken where these standards are not met, to ensure all students feel comfortable and can fully participate in their courses and extra-curricular activities.

For government

The government should use the Turing programme to transform the opportunities available for disadvantaged students to study abroad. The programme should aim to level up participation in opportunities abroad for lower income students, by removing financial barriers, providing a wide range of options for students both in Europe and further afield, and by working in consultation with disadvantaged young people to identify barriers to their participation.

Maintenance grants should be restored, to provide additional support for those who need it most. But, whether through loans or grants, the government should also review the sufficiency of maintenance available to ensure it can cover living costs for those whose parents cannot supplement this maintenance. Reducing the need for students from less well-off backgrounds to work during term time could positively impact both their academic and wider skills development, as well as enabling them to take full advantage of the university experience.