This week I spoke at the Bridge Group’s inaugural conference Bridging the Gaps: Fair Access to University and the Professions. The event coincided with the launch of two reports by the group, a ‘bottom up’ charitable think-and-do tank comprised of people working in and around the higher education sector concerned about widening participation and fair access to university as well as access to the professions and other blue-chip graduate employment. The report launched on the day, in which I have a featurette, focused on what happens after the first degree. A few days earlier, the Group published a report commissioned by the Civil Service’s ‘Fast Stream’ recruitment strand, looking at the diversity of its entry and noting that this is less diverse than the intake to Oxbridge.
The conference was a great success, bringing together academic researchers, widening participation practitioners, employers and the third sector and demonstrating that there is genuine commitment to tackling these issues to be found in many places. For me, there were two very clear (and straightforward) conclusions from the event. First, simply securing access to higher education for under-represented groups is not enough to achieve social mobility. We need to look at what happens afterwards, whether that is recruitment of graduates in the labour market or access to postgraduate study. Presenter after presenter highlighted the hidden advantages of cultural capital enjoyed by graduates from advantaged backgrounds as recruiters – unconsciously or not – select in their own image. Particularly interesting here was the study by Louise Ashley and colleagues on how social class background influences progression within the firm. This ties in to Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison’s seminal research on the ‘class ceiling’, where they show an earnings penalty for the upwardly mobile compared to those in the same occupation who are socially immobile.
Second, obsession with institutional status permeates graduate employment (and probably postgraduate recruitment) practices. A few employers are starting to examine and review their use of first-degree institution as a filter to their graduate recruitment process and widen the net. However the strong impression remains that the more prestigious graduate schemes focus their efforts on a small set of universities within the Russell Group. Keynote speaker Greg Dyke told a probably-not-very-apocryphal anecdote about a graduate recruiter for an elite law firm claiming they were widening their graduate recruitment pool: now they would look for graduates from certain University of London institutions, not just Oxford and Cambridge. I hope this is not the case when it comes to selection to postgraduate degrees, but it is quite possible. We know that there are stark differences in progression rates to postgraduate study for graduates from different universities, but the postgraduate admissions process is currently a bit of a ‘black box’. We do not know how much these institutional differences result from different rates of application or acceptance for graduates across institutions.
A key challenge raised by employers was the commercial imperative behind graduate recruitment. To some extent, this meant hiring graduates who they thought would be a good ‘fit’ with the organisation and who would be able to relate to their clients. While some of the major employers present, like hosts KPMG, argued that their client base was diverse so their workforce had to be too, I suspect that most employers do not know or care that they have an issue. Getting the best talent was a concern for all employers though, since this directly affects the bottom line. On the face of it at least, graduates from the most prestigious universities with top grades are the ones appearing to offer most to employers. If this is a socially as well as academically selected group, well for many firms that will be a secondary consideration at best. Here firms are behaving not unlike universities in selecting for undergraduate degrees – they want to widen the pool, but ultimately grades matter most.
It is here where I want to draw on two sporting examples to highlight what is wrong with this model. First, football. As a Leicesterian I am obviously desperate to contrive as many opportunities as possible to talk about Leicester City while our moment of glory lasts. Call me a pessimist, but I’ve seen what has happened to Blackburn, Portsmouth and, er Nottingham Forest (hahahahaha) so I’m making hay while the sun shines.
The English Premier League has 99 problems, but lack of meritocracy is not one. The team that scores more goals than its opponents most often become champions. Players end up in the team based on how much they contribute to achieving this. Every week, tens of thousands of people pay a lot of money to turn up and watch their team and hence they are quick to point out to managers in colourful language when a player isn’t cutting it – and quick to point the same out to directors about managers too. At least in terms of the players, the League is diverse and a route to untold social mobility for those in Britain from deprived backgrounds (and those from poor countries too).
And yet…still within the Premier League, there is a temptation to ‘pick winners’. The absurd wages and transfer fees mean a squad can cost as much as the total annual turnover at my university of 20,000 people. The biggest clubs cream off talent through sheer spending power, which has meant that only five clubs have won the Premier League title out of the 47 that have competed for it at some point since its inception in 1992. Manchester United alone has won 13 of the 24 titles since then. Spain’s La Liga is little different, with Real Madrid winning more than half the time. The two clubs are economic giants.
Leicester City are a different prospect. Their squad is made up of the footballing equivalents of cheap cuts. Jamie Vardy, the League’s leading goalscorer and now major star was previously at non-league Fleetwood Town, a veritable snip at £1 million. Riyad Mahrez, almost certainly the best player in the League on current form, cost just one third of that. When City beat Chelsea a few weeks ago, the cost of their team on the night was one tenth of that of the London club.
What is the lesson for graduate recruitment? It’s about looking for talent wherever it may be, recognising potential and creating a team. Sticking together a group of galacticos works some of the time, but equally with the right set up it is clearly possible to bring the best out of unsung players such as Drinkwater, Albrighton and Morgan. Having a fixed graduate entry point which is open only to a narrow band of institutions writes off any chance of picking the next Vardy of marketing or Kanté of accounting.
My second sporting example is the NFL. It may seem a strange choice. It is an endeavour soaked in commerce, the most capitalist of sports where owners have been known to move the team to another city entirely in search of greater profits (a fate which has just befallen the Rams, who return to Los Angeles in 2016 after years in St Louis). Games are staccato affairs, with frequent breaks and ‘timeouts’ to squeeze in more advertising. Player and coach salaries are huge.
But in other respects, NFL borders on being socialist. To begin with, there is a salary cap. Teams can spend BIG, but they can’t outspend each other. Coaches must decide whether to splash out on a few stars or spread the money around. To be successful they need to find and develop unfashionable players. The league also prevents tall poppies through the Draft. This works by giving most to those who have least: the team finishing last has the first choice of new recruits from college football; the reigning Superbowl champions are last in line to choose. Teams can recruit those not picked in the Draft (‘free agents’), some of whom go on from nowhere to be top stars.
The incongruous equality of the NFL has a strong dividend. American football is not a game to everyone’s taste, but the athletic quality on display is Olympic standard, team after team, week after week. While I’ve been watching that Vardy goal on repeat for days, it’s matched by the feats of the NFL elite. And it’s an open contest. In the 50 Superbowls played up to 2016, no team has won it more than six times, only four of the current 32 teams have never appeared in the final and no team has three consecutive wins. By regulating in this way, the NFL has prioritised the collective over the individual team and everyone has benefitted.
The lessons for graduate recruitment are clear. Equality works well and picking winners is no guarantee of success. Being more open – as universities and graduate recruiters – to late developers and to growing and nurturing, rather than just selecting talent can be highly effective. Watch out Real Madrid: Leicester City are coming for you…