Firms cannot truly tackle equality and diversity through graduate recruitment.

Caroline Adair
German Politicians Debate Future of Universities
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Firms cannot truly tackle equality and diversity through graduate recruitment.

They need to engage employees from disadvantaged backgrounds much earlier, and the role of the Third Sector is critical.

Catherine McGuinness, policy chairman of the City of London Corporation, wrote a timely and important article on Monday in City AM. Following the Social Mobility Foundation’s publication of the fifty best employers in the UK for improving social mobility, McGuinness called on City firms to get ambitious about equality of opportunity – and rightly highlights the role of apprenticeships in making the difference.

The argument bears some additional support.

Firms cannot truly tackle equality and diversity through graduate recruitment. There have been great improvements here, either through Contextual Recruitment (such as Rare’s pioneering work), reducing entry criteria, or anonymising applications for graduates. But ultimately, firms will still only access the few: because for many, university is unattainable.

(The Bridge Group’s excellent recent conference on social mobility painted an unsparing landscape of inequality, and many thanks to them and their speakers for much of the data following.)

Students from low socio-economic classes are more debt adverse than more affluent students. This isn’t surprising. Yet successive governments have, while claiming to increase access to university, ensured that student debt is a huge barrier to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Between 2002 - 2015, there’s been an increase of over 500% in fees and over 250% in total student debt, while wages have stagnated. The average cost of a university degree is £44k, which is bad enough, but the poorest 40% of students will leave university with an average debt of £58k.

Yet even if they are willing to get into such staggering levels of debt, their upbringing means their experience will often differ greatly from those with whom they will be competing in the jobs market.

Only 1% of pupils who have free school meals achieve 3 As at A Level. 3 Cs at A level, consequently, should be considered a remarkable achievement for someone from a disadvantaged background - but it’s not good enough to get into the top tier of universities. In fact, the poorest fifth of students go almost exclusively to the ‘bottom’ universities, with degrees that may have little merit in the jobs market or preparation for the working world.

If they complete - and there’s no guarantee they will, as dropout is a significantly greater threat to disadvantaged young people according to today’s report from the Office for Fair Access - they may leave university deeply in debt and barely more employable than they were as a school leaver. They face not just any unemployment, but an unemployment borne of institutional failure, poor advice, and their best interests abandoned at every turn.

Faced with all these factors, then, one of their best options for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds has got to be an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, schools are still measured by university placements, and young people are often not given guidance about their options.

By now you should be getting a sense that things are deeply unfair. And you’re right.

But this is where charities can make a critical intervention. Charities can do what schools don’t, and commerce won’t. As McGuinness describes, ‘diversity enhances corporate performance… Yet some businesses tell us that they are finding it difficult to recruit enough people with the right skills.’

Leadership Through Sport & Business is a social mobility charity that has transformed disadvantaged young people’s lives since 2012. We give them the training and support to thrive in accountancy apprenticeship placements with major firms, including NEX plc, Macquarie Group and many on the SMF’s index: Grant Thornton, Deloitte, EY, Rolls Royce, Eversheds, and Dept for Education. We, and other charities like us, make intensive, commercially-unviable commitments. We take risks based on doing good, not doing well, and that’s essential when transforming young lives. We take the risks, mitigating the employer’s: but we still need progressive, committed employers as partners.

As well as transforming young people’s lives, charities like ours transform the workplace too. Apprentices make a contribution to the bottom line, but also make companies more representative of the communities they serve and are situated in. And each apprentice leaves a legacy in their company too: of revised expectations, of reduced minimum academic criteria, of redoubled commitment to social mobility – now the barriers are more clearly understood.

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