Mark Riley Cardwell reports on the Leicester Exchanges live debate, which took place at the national office of charity Teach First, in London, on Thursday 13 March 2014. The topic under discussion was how both higher education and graduate employers can help push social mobility further, giving everyone the opportunity to realise their ambitions.
Many talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds still believe top graduate jobs are simply not open to them, experts warned at an event to discuss social mobility in graduate recruitment.
Speakers from leading graduate employers said it was up to organisations to spark the aspirations of children from non-privileged backgrounds early on to prevent them “self-selecting” themselves out of high-flying jobs.
The University of Leicester hosted a lively debate on Social Mobility – Realising Ambitions at the sleek central London offices of Teach First, an independent charity which recruits more than 1,200 graduates per year to train as teachers in disadvantaged schools, on Thursday, March 13. The organisation was ranked fourth in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list for 2012/13.
The event, chaired by Professor Sir Robert Burgess, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, drew in an audience of employers, university administrators and academics to discuss what can be done to improve graduate employment prospects for the least advantaged.
The debate followed a recent report by Alan Milburn, the government’s adviser on social mobility, which showed that the UK’s leading employers target an average of only 19 universities for their graduate recruitment programmes – and these universities tend to have the lowest proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Wasim Khan, partner of London-based international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright and a specialist in real estate law, said employers need to take the initiative to look for talent – and not expect it to fall into their laps.
Norton Rose employs more than 3,800 lawyers around the world, and is a top 100 graduate employer in the UK – and Mr Khan said the firm is benefiting greatly from engaging with gifted youngsters at an early age.
“What I have learned from my involvement in talent recruitment is that to get the best talent, we have to take the responsibility to go out and seek it,” he said. “What I tend to find is that there are certain students who will self-select themselves out of the process. Their parents may not have gone to university, or there may be peer pressure at play.
“We need to be looking at the 12 to 16-year-old category – before they have made any hard and fast decisions about what they want to do,”
He said it was incumbent on firms to go into schools and get the message across that students from less advantaged backgrounds are just as entitled to a career in law as those from private schools.
He added that improving diversity in the work force is not necessarily an easy thing to do – but it was ultimately something that businesses need to invest time and money in.
“We have to ask ourselves ‘why are we doing it?’. On a philosophical and rational level, it is the right thing to do. But you also have to ask ‘does it work for your business?’– and that is where the challenge is.”
He also added he believes real strides are now being made in improving social mobility in graduate recruitment, and sang the praises of the PRIME initiative – a programme offering work experience at law firms to students from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds between the ages of 14 and 18
He said efforts to involve those from poorer backgrounds may have had the air of tokenism in the past, but that is now changing.
“I think we have moved from something that is cosmetic to something that is real, and I think that is really important,” he said. “From my own personal experience, I am from an ethnic minority – so I can relate to this personally as well.”
His thoughts were broadly shared by fellow panel member Jane Clark, Head of Campus Recruitment for Barclays Corporate and Investment Bank in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Ms Clark takes a leading role in the organisation’s recruitment of more than 250 graduates in the UK per year – and she also sits on the University of Leicester’s Employer Advisory Board.
She echoed Mr Khan’s thoughts that employers must engage with the least-advantaged at a much younger age than they have in the past.
“What we have to do today is start earlier,” she said. “Barclays ran a summer school with over 200 schools over the summer, which took on A-level and GCSE students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We covered things like how to write a CV, and held mock interviews. I do believe that we have to start at that age now to spark the aspiration.”
But she said trying to measure social mobility can actually be a very challenging task in itself. She said questions contained in the bank’s application form relating to social mobility – including family background and income – are often ignored completely by applicants. This makes it hard to think about the talent pool already open to the organisation, she said.
Ms Clark also questioned whether some longstanding norms in graduate recruitment – such as the importance placed on graduates achieving a 2:1 or a certain UCAS point tariff – should really be taken as the final word on applicants’ professional potential.
“Another barrier is competency-based interviewing – where the criteria is drawing from candidates’ past experiences,” she said. Barclays are instead moving to using strength-based interviewing. This places more importance in candidate’s potential and less in their past experiences, which can skew things in the favour of more privileged candidates.
“These are very, very simple things but it really is up to the employers to go away and look at their practices,” she said. “It makes good business sense to have a diverse workforce. It is really worth the time and the effort.”
For Elizabeth Ebbs-Brewer, Associate Director of Attraction at Teach First, a key way of reaching out to young people from diverse backgrounds is the inspirational example that can be set by “role models” already working within the organisation.
Teach First has a graduate recruitment team of 75, and prides itself on having staff from a huge range of socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities, she said.
Some 24 per cent of Teach First recruits were eligible for Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – the now defunct programme which gave financial support to 16 to 18-year-olds from poorer households. In addition, 32 per cent of recruits were the first people in their families to go to university. This means that there is always someone within the organisation that young people of any background can identify with, she said.
“One of the things pupils respond to best is role models – that’s a very, very powerful message to be able to give to people,” said Ms Ebbs-Brewer. “At Teach First, we are incredibly passionate about making sure we are reaching all the talent open to us – especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We have been expanding the range of institutions we go to over the last three to four years, and we now recruit from 102 universities around the world.
“Going into schools and doing the work early to make sure pupils have these aspirations is crucial. Often in less privileged environments, a lot of the students do not have the aspirations or the knowledge of what opportunities are open to them.
“They may be restricted to their local university because of family pressures. I think it is really important to target universities outside the top 10 – because a lot of amazing students end up there, and not because of their grades.”
Dr Henrietta O’Connor, Reader in Employment Studies at the University of Leicester’s School of Management, strongly agreed on this point.
Dr O’Connor, who has done extensive research into transitions in the labour market and is currently working on a project on youth unemployment, said: “A lot of recruiters look only to the elite universities. In doing that, the problems of social mobility are compounded again and again.
“In terms of looking for talent, it is very important for graduate recruiters to look outside the top 10 or the Russell Group institutions.
“One of the things that our research at Leicester shows is that a lot of students at universities outside these elite institutions are very high achievers – but felt very intimidated by the top 10 universities. They chose a university where they felt relaxed, and it is very important for recruiters to recognise that.
“Here at Leicester, 90 per cent of our students are from state school backgrounds – and they do just as well as those from private school backgrounds. To achieve the same results without that backup is something to be proud of. This creates job applicants with resilience, who will already have the skills employers are looking for.”
Set against a stunning London skyline – including Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, City Hall and the Gherkin – the event drew an audience of more than 50 representatives from top graduate employers.
Questions and comments were put to the panel by recruiters from Civil Service Fast Stream, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and law firm Clifford Chance, as well as university staff from Greenwich School of Management and the University’s own Career Development Service and Division of External Relations.
Twitter users could follow the debate online using the hashtag #LExSocialMobility