UK Politics

Professions must be open to all backgrounds, Alan Milburn says

Surgeons
Medicine is one of the professions criticised

Professions such as law, journalism and medicine must do more to widen their intake, the deputy prime minister's social mobility adviser has said.

Ex-Labour minister Alan Milburn called for a "bigger drive" to open careers to young people from poorer backgrounds.

Publishing a "progress report" on the issue, he said internship schemes were a "lottery" and no profession had "cracked" widening recruitment.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg said the issue was still not being taken seriously enough.

'Too sporadic'

In 2010, the former health secretary was tasked by the coalition with looking at the state of social mobility, having performed a similar role for Labour under Gordon Brown.

This came amid concerns that entrants to the professions were coming from an increasingly narrow social group.

Mr Milburn, who stood down as an MP at the last election, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There's a series of barriers that, maybe inadvertently, the professions put in the way of those with ability and aptitude from a variety of backgrounds getting even the first foot on the ladder into the professions.

"It's partially about how they provide work experience opportunities, internships, their recruitment processes, where they recruit from."

The report says:

• Efforts to raise career awareness and aspiration in schools are "too sporadic and too unspecific"

• Too many employers are recruiting from "too narrow a range of universities and regions"

• Work experience and internships are becoming more important to job prospects, but they are "still a lottery"

• Selection processes for careers are still "too haphazard"

• The graduate grip on the labour market is "still strong".

Assessing progress on recommendations made in 2009, Mr Milburn said a best practice code for internships had been drawn up, but little had been done to help students from poorer backgrounds afford to take up such opportunities and professions had not reviewed their own practices.

Mr Milburn, who has described the 1950s and 1960s as the "golden age" of social mobility, has suggested legislation may be needed to guarantee fair access to internships if progress is not made on a voluntary basis.

'Socially exclusive'

The report noted that the legal profession was making "real efforts" to widen its intake, but added that the "further up the profession you go, the more socially exclusive it becomes".

Medicine lacked a "sense of the sort of galvanised effort" to improve access to young people from different backgrounds, while journalism had increasingly become a "degree-only profession".

Overall, the report concluded no profession had "cracked the fair access problem" and "all too often the reality is that the fair access agenda remains sidelined in most professions".

Despite the weakness of the economy, Mr Milburn said employment in the professions was increasing and there was a "prospective dividend" for the country if policies were got right.

"David Cameron is fond of saying: 'We are all in this together,'" he said. "This is a job for government, universities, schools and for professional employers as well."

'Complex issue'

Mr Clegg, who has acknowledged he benefited himself from family contacts early in his career, said social mobility was a "complex" issue and could not be improved overnight.

But he added: "Progress has not been fast enough and in some industries the issues are still not taken seriously. There needs to be a step change in professions like medicine, journalism and politics."

The government has promised to set up a social mobility and child poverty commission, and also recently announced plans for an annual "snapshot" of social mobility by measuring information such as educational achievement, access to professions and birth weights.

Labour have said social mobility is going "backwards" under the coalition and there must be far more opportunities for people not going into higher education.

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants said the accountancy profession, praised in the report for its encouragement of non-graduates, was willing to share best practice with other professions about how to offer "flexible routes" to getting qualifications.

"The key is to ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are as able to access the professions as those from more privileged backgrounds," said its UK head Andrew Leck.

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