Are postgraduate qualifications the ‘new frontier of social mobility’?

Paul Brian James Wakeling, Daniel Laurison

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We investigate the relationship between social origin, postgraduate degree attainment, and occupational outcomes across five British age-group cohorts. We use recently-available UK Labour Force Survey data to conduct a series of logistic regressions of postgraduate (masters or doctorate) degree attainment among those with first degrees, with controls for measures of degree classification, degree subject, age, gender, ethnicity and national origin. We find a marked strengthening of the effect of class origin on degree- and occupational attainment across age cohorts. While for older generations there is little or no difference by class origin in the rates at which first-degree graduates attain postgraduate degrees, those with working-class-origins in the youngest age-group are only about 28 per cent as likely to obtain a postgraduate degree when compared with their peers from privileged origins. Moreover, social origin matters more for occupational destination, even among those with postgraduate degrees, for those in younger age groups. These findings demonstrate the newly important, and increasing, role of postgraduate degrees in reproducing socio-economic inequality in the wake of the substantial expansion of undergraduate and postgraduate education. Our findings lend some support to the Maximally Maintained Inequality thesis, suggesting that gains in equality of access to first-degrees are indeed at risk from postgraduate expansion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-555
Number of pages23
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number3
Early online date12 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sept 2017

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© London School of Economics and Political Science 2017. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • higher education
  • maximally maintained inequality
  • occupational attainment
  • postgraduates
  • social class
  • Social Mobility
  • social mobility
  • Higher education

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