James Weinberg


A lack of diversity in our student populations is a well-known and lamentable feature of the Higher Education sector (and among Russell Group universities in particular). Yet whilst universities continue to focus on diversifying their student populations, improving outreach initiatives, and supporting students who might be likely to drop out of their courses, there has not been a commensurate level of energy and attention given to improving all students’ employability at the end of their degrees. 


At the same time, it is obvious that structural barriers to equality in the workplace continue to prevail across the UK labour force generally and in political careers especially. Only 10% of MPs, 4% of councillors, and 12.7% of civil servants (including only 6% of senior civil servants) are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds (compared to 14% of the UK population at the time of the last census). Similarly, just 34% of MPs and 36% of councillors are women.


The percentage of women in the senior civil service ranges from 28.1% at the Ministry of Defence to 56.7% at the Department for Education (average of 45% across departments). The statistics for those with disabilities and of different religious beliefs are equally disheartening. The situation is not much better in UK academia itself, where women account for 67% of all part-time staff and only 26% of professors. Just 2% of all academics (0.7% of professors) are Black. 


Whilst a burden of responsibility categorically lies with political institutions and employers to improve diversity in their workplaces and accessibility in their recruitment procedures, universities should also be doing more to level up the playing field. It is naïve to think that a degree will open the same doors for everyone. If universities are serious about getting a handle on equality and diversity (and leading that conversation per se), then they need to think as much about the career prospects of all students as they currently do about the financial returns of getting these students through their doors in the first place.


Universities have the contacts and the resource to do more when it comes to (a) demystifying political careers for students from non-traditional backgrounds, (b) coaching students prior to interview and assessment, (c) providing access to mentors or work experience, and (d) raising aspiration by making political careers accessible and understandable. Those universities with the broadest shoulders, so to speak, should be doing the most to lead this charge and reaching out to support other institutions as well.


With this in mind, I recently convened an event designed to improve diversity in government and politics for 60 students from four UK universities (Sheffield, Reading, Oxford Brookes and Oxford). Organised in conjunction with Josh Platt, a senior policy advisor at the UK Treasury, and kindly hosted by Hertford College in Oxford at no cost to students, the event was designed to improve the accessibility of related careers in elected politics, the civil service, academia, and private sector consultancy. All of the young people who attended were from BAME, bursary eligible, and/or first generation (to go to university) backgrounds. The majority were women. 


A range of speakers from across these ‘political’ jobs discussed the nature of their work as well as the challenges, the opportunities, and the entry requirements and routes in each case. Speakers included Jacqui Smith (former Labour Party MP and the first female Home Secretary), Kumar Iyer (Chief economist at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Emma Norris (Director of Research at the Institute for Government), Professor Claire Dunlop (incoming Vice-Chair of the Political Studies Association), Tanya Abraham (Director of Political and Social Research at YouGov), and Beth Russell (Director General of Tax and Welfare at Her Majesty’s Treasury).


Alongside presentations and roundtable discussions from these speakers, the Treasury also ran an interactive situational teamwork exercise in which students from all four universities had to work together in groups to solve a hypothetical public policy challenge. This exercise was similar to those used by the Treasury in its own assessment centres. The University of Oxford careers service reflected on this exercise with the students before giving bespoke CV and application guidance. 


Although differing in the context-specific details they shared with students, our speakers had a number of common pieces of advice for those aspiring to careers in politics (broadly defined):

1. Always ask questions of those with insider knowledge about your chosen industry. Senior figures can act as mentors and champions to open doors where seemingly there are none. Invariably they're happy to help, but you must ask to find out.

2. You don't need to be the finished article to apply for a job (quite the opposite in most cases), but start thinking about the skills, qualities and experiences that make you stand out. And if you have a chance to get research methods or data analytics training, grab it.

3. Never try to be someone or something you're not. You'll end up disliking your job and possibly yourself. Decide who you are and what you're about, and then pursue the career you'll enjoy most (even if that isn't always the 'kudos' job).

4. Ignore office politics and never let yourself be intimidated by small-minded bigotry, misogyny, or blatant discrimination. Tell those with the power to stop it, seek support from those with experience, and wherever possible get on with your job and let your success speak for itself.

5. Seek mentors wherever and whenever you can, but also remember to support one another. You are, after all, the leaders of tomorrow.

6. Working life lasts for a *very* long time. Try not to think that your first job will define you or that you're stuck in it forever. Modern careers are journeys with lots of opportunities for change and to learn new things. Don't be afraid to take your time, to try things, and to fail in the process.

7. Assessment centres often use questions and situational judgement tests that speak to mainstream socio-economic and cultural backgrounds or privilege. Don't be afraid to question the question and, in doing so, hold employers to account on accessibility and diversity.


Student feedback on this event has been overwhelmingly positive. As one first year student from the University of Sheffield wrote: "It was nice to be reassured that a Politics (and International Relations) degree is as much of a ‘door-opener’ than any other and that there are schemes in place to move from degree to both industry and academia." 


In keeping with the aim and purpose of the event, another undergraduate commented: "I think today was really successful, and really important for people whose background doesn't give them a foot in the door. Today has definitely helped alleviate my anxiety about not being from a background which gives me automatic contacts in the industry." 


Assuming that the marketisation of higher education is not disappearing any time soon, it is possible that academics may be able to harness that logic to employability schemes and events (funded by universities) that improve equality and diversity in political careers (and other careers as well!). I hope to reproduce this particular event in other locations around the country and I welcome everyone and anyone to get involved or to join this wider conversation.


James Weinberg is a Lecturer in Political Behaviour at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield and a convenor of the Political Psychology and Young People’s Politics specialist groups at the UK Political Studies Association. He tweets at @JamesWeinberg1. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.