A university challenge

Posted on: 13 Oct 2015

Charlotte Avery, Head at St Mary’s School in Cambridge, discusses the recent revamps, a number of firms have taken, in the graduate selection process.

This summer the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the government's social mobility watchdog, released a report that found that the working classes are being steadily excluded from top jobs at the UK's biggest accounting firms. Of the ‘big four’ accounting firms, namely PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG, three have revamped their graduate selection processes.

Deloitte, the most recent firm to prevent “unconscious bias”, is working with diversity recruitment company Rare as part of a new 'contextualisation' process. Deloitte recruiters will not know where candidates went to school or university; instead an algorithm will take into account ‘contextual’ data (such as economic background and personal circumstances) alongside academic results. Critics however have suggested that this process is a form of social engineering and Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Buckingham University, questioned whether the policy was the best way to spot real talent. David Sproul, Senior Partner and Chief Executive of Deloitte UK, said: “Improving social mobility is one of the UK’s biggest challenges. In order to provide the best possible service and make an impact with our clients, we need to hire people who think and innovate differently, come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a range of perspectives and experience into the firm.”

Deloitte’s announcement follows the changes imposed by EY earlier this year. The company scrapped its requirement for school graduate candidates to have the equivalent of three B grades at A Level or university graduate candidates to have a 2:1 degree, as there was “no evidence success at university correlates with achievement in later life”. PwC announced that it would also stop using A Level grades as a benchmark for selecting graduate recruits.

This may appear admirable but Deloitte will, of course, have little authority to impose this “concealment” on anyone other than their own recruitment teams and even then it will be hard to enforce since it will be easy enough to do background checks on the candidates coming forward even if the information is not printed on the application form.

The trend that our Head of Careers and Work Experience, Mrs Sarah Newbery, has seen over the past five years is that all accounting firms are looking for and encouraging school leavers to apply for top grade apprenticeships. Mrs Newbery said: “As long ago as 2010 the HR manager of one local firm of accountants went so far as to say that the firm actually preferred to take 18 year old school leavers who they could train on the job because, all too often, graduates arrived with an abstract academic approach to accountancy, which they were reluctant to relinquish to the more practical approach that is required ‘at the coalface’. So, time had to be spent ‘undoing’ and/or ‘unlearning’ impractical theories and then learning afresh with a different approach.”

The big four accounting firms recruit at graduate age as well as school leaver age and the career opportunities are both equal and excellent for candidates entering the profession at either stage. Our own alumna, Flo Barrett, in her third year of apprenticeship, is destined for great things with EY having joined the EY School Leaver Programme.

We should also pay homage to the skills that employers are truly seeking out in today’s candidates. Focusing on life skills rather than whether or not a student went to a Russell Group university is worth a moment of thought. Concerns raised by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) research, which highlighted a lack of key workplace skills in young university recruits, demonstrate quite clearly that we should be focusing on the Top Ten Employee Skills, as recommended by the organisation. Teamwork, leadership, communication and creativity are all life skills which students should gain throughout their school and university careers.

Two years ago, at a meeting of business leaders, the Prince of Wales commented that “our educational system is not giving young people the ‘character’ they need to survive in the real world”. These “soft skills: the talents that business gurus have pinpointed as the modern workplace’s most sought-after qualities”, can in fact be taught in schools, as we do – you just need to go about it the right way. The value placed on intangible qualities such as communication, self-awareness and resilience is over-taking exam results when it comes to employability in my mind. Firms like Deloitte, EY and PwC should be looking at whether a candidate can hold a conversation; look someone in the eye; lead a presentation or create a fun and inspiring fundraising event from scratch, regardless of where they went to school or to university. If recruiters were to focus on these characteristics as a priority then these ‘new and improved’ graduate selection processes would be redundant; focus on the person not an institution’s name.

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