Britain less meritocratic than continental European countries, study finds

Researchers warn that unpaid internships could make the problem even worse

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Indy Politics

British society is less meritocratic than many of its European neighbours, according to a landmark study

Researchers found that British men with identical qualifications earned 20% less if their parents did not go to university compared to those whose parents did.

Analysis found that the effect of someone’s parents’ education on earnings was measurably stronger in the UK than in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria.

The labour markets in those countries are “comparatively meritocratic”, the study concluded.

France, famous for its elite grandes écoles was the only European country studied that has similarly low levels of meritocracy as the UK.

The study by researchers at London’s respected Institute of Education looked at data from 40,000 men ages 25 to 59.

The study’s authors said the results were a “striking example of how inequality can be transmitted from one generation to the next”.

Dr John Jerrim, one of the study’s authors, said: "The UK may offer particularly high economic rewards for going to a 'good' university, whereas, in other countries, 'a degree is a degree'

"As children from advantaged backgrounds tend to go to more highly-ranked universities in this country, this could help to explain our results.

"It is also reasonable to assume that the sons and daughters of families with greater financial resources may be given more time to find a suitable job than those from less advantaged background.”

They also issued a warning regarding the possible effect of unpaid internship, which are expected to exacerbate the effects of intergenerational inequality: “Most of the men and women in this study began work before unpaid internships became commonplace. It will therefore be interesting to see whether they skew incomes even further in favour of those with graduate parents."

The study only covered England and Northern Ireland as data was not available for Scotland and Wales.

The statistics were originally collected as part of the Programmes for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. 

Although the study focused primarily on men, the authors also determined that women whose parents were early school-leavers earn 11 per less than those whose parents were graduates, even if they have the same qualifications.