Top firms are 'excluding' working class graduates

If you're 'polished' and went to a Russell Group university, you're far more likely to be hired.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 26 Aug 2015

The UK’s top law and accountancy firms are ‘systematically excluding bright working class applicants’ from graduate positions, in favour of ‘polished’ candidates from middle class, private school backgrounds. Britain’s class divide, it seems, may be as strong as ever.

Almost 40% of graduate trainees at the third of ‘elite’ law firms that report social mobility data went to private schools, which educate just 7% of the population. That according to research of 13 companies employing 45,000 people commissioned by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. As many as 70% of graduate hires at the five accountancy firms that took part in the study went to fee-paying or grammar schools.

This was mostly down to the companies targeting the Russell Group universities: 40-50% of applicants to the accountancy firms had been to the 24 research-heavy institutions, and they received 60-70% of job offers. Private school students are over-represented at those universities, in large part because they are more likely to get the A-Level results necessary to get in.

So is it really the fault of top companies looking for the best, brightest graduates, and faced with record numbers of applicants, that they use a ‘short-cut’ like which university someone went to? After all, educational inequality, which many argue sets in before children even start primary school, is not their fault.

But businesses may well be missing out on the best by using such crude targeting. Going to a top university – or indeed any - doesn’t necessarily correlate with the qualities you need to succeed in the world of work.

As former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy, who was brought up on a Liverpool council estate, pointed out in the Telegraph, ‘A number of senior professionals believe they would not now be hired by their own organisation, possibly because they did not go to one of the "right universities", perhaps because they did not go to university at all.’

Even more worryingly, some of the recruiters at the 13 companies interviewed by the researchers explicitly favoured more privileged candidates, going beyond the ‘unconscious bias’ blamed for much discrimination. ‘Accents make a difference, things people talk about,’ one accountancy recruiter said. ‘We all do, don't we? We make judgements.’

‘I’m very interested in people who’ve gone travelling,’ a law recruiter said. Clearly, not everyone can afford to see the world. As Leahy said, ‘The only travelling I did was from Liverpool to London to get a job stacking shelves!’

Another law recruiter went so far as to claim having people of the same background in the firm increased efficiency. ‘You get my jokes. There's not a risk that I'm going to offend you by saying something, because we get each other and that's hugely efficient.’ In other words, banter makes for good business.

One did acknowledge the issue, but argued the risk of missing out on talent was outweighed. ‘For us it boils down almost to a budgetary [problem]… how much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?’

But even then they would probably class a ‘diamond’ as someone like them, someone with the so-called ‘polish’ that comes from a middle class background. As Royal Holloway’s Dr Louise Ashley, the lead researcher, said, businesses need to take a good hard look at how they define talent, ‘to ensure that disadvantaged students are not ruled out for reasons of background rather than aptitude and skill.’

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