Steff Humm: Are businesses losing faith in the British education system?

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Academic qualifications have been becoming less of a priority in graduate recruitment for some time, with two thirds of employers saying work experience is more important for assessing skills and potential.

Two of the UK’s largest recruiters of graduates, accountancy firms PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Ernst and Young (EY), have recently made major changes to their application processes for entry level positions. The plan – to increase workplace diversity by removing minimum education levels for applicants – seems to represent a wider cultural shift away from purely academic career pathways towards more vocational forms of education.

“Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment,” says Maggie Stilwell, EY’s managing partner for talent. “It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.”

Meaningless qualifications

This year, more 18-year-olds than ever have been offered a place at a British university, but reports show that despite an increase in overall pass rates, the proportion of top grade results has fallen for the fourth year in a row.

The increase in student acceptance rates to higher education is likely correlated to the government’s removal of the cap on undergraduate places. With universities now able to take on as many high-paying students as they like, A-level results appear almost redundant and the true purpose of bachelor’s degree is increasingly unclear.

Exams are intended not just as a measure of attainment but also of differentiation,” says John Crace in The Guardian. “If they don’t do that, they are meaningless.”

If grades are essentially meaningless to universities it’s perhaps not surprising that employers are taking them less seriously when it comes to graduate recruitment. A 2013 study from The Edge Foundation and City & Guilds found that 83 percent of employers across multiple sectors felt that young people should be made aware of alternative routes into employment, and 84 percent said children should be gaining work experience while they are still at school.

Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of CV-Library thinks “businesses are of split opinion when it comes to the UK’s education system.” The latest survey from the job site found that 90 percent of recruitment professionals believe a combination of education and experience makes a candidate the most employable.

“When asked whether they would obtain a degree if they were a student in today’s climate, over 50 percent of recruiters said no,” says Biggins. “This clearly indicates that those who know the jobs market best, aren’t convinced that higher education is essential when it comes to having a successful career.”

This week, the government launched a campaign to boost work experience in the UK. With the help of UK businesses and 12,000 young people, the “WE can” campaign aims to provide advice and opportunities to help young people avoid the cycle of being unable to get a job without work experience and work experience without a job. This, combined with the Conservatives’ pledge to offer an additional three million apprenticeships by 2020, demonstrates a country-wide cultural change in development opportunities for young people.

“Vocational qualifications are now considered just as important to businesses as academic ones,” said John Cridland, director general of business lobby organisation the CBI. “Businesses want qualifications that have real currency in the labour market and equip young people with the knowledge, skills and behaviours that match business needs. The best vocational qualifications do this.”

Barriers to diversity

Ahead of the release of this year’s GCSE and A-level results, EY announced that it will remove all academic and education details from applications to its trainee programme, relying instead on the results of online “strengths” tests when assessing potential candidates.

With ethnic minorities representing just four percent of its senior staff and women 20 percent, the company says it wants to open up its talent pool to a more diverse range of people by allowing applicants of any educational background to apply.

“Academic qualifications, when used in isolation, will rarely tell an employer whether a candidate has the specific skills needed to succeed in that particular role or organisation,” says Maggie Stilwell. “UCAS points alone aren’t able to show how commercial a candidate is for example, or whether they enjoy networking or to what extent they are able to influence others.”

EY’s announcement this month follows the decision by PwC to remove A-level results from its selection process. The accountancy firm announced in May that it would ignore exam results when recruiting because of the unfair advantage they give to private school pupils.

“We want to target bright, talented people and extend our career opportunities to untapped talent in wider pockets of society,” says Richard Irwin, PwC’s head of student recruitment. Our experience shows that whilst A-Level assessment can indicate potential, for far too many students there are other factors that influence results. Competition and assessment for our graduate roles will be as tough as ever – but those that want to get on with a career in business can do so.”

Losing faith

Higher education in the UK has been changing rapidly since the introduction of tuition fees. Although a record number of people from low-income families applied for university places this year, research shows that students from working-class families are three times less likely to be offered a place at a top university than their richer counterparts with the same grades.

Even without considering league tables, with more than 409,000 students accepted to undergraduate degrees in England this year, employers may struggle to differentiate when 409,000 graduates walk out of the other side in three years’ time. To ensure diversity in recruitment, organisations will have no choice but to re-think the way they assess candidates, while universities consider how to market the value of education if its merits for employers diminish.

“On the face of it, it’s about diversity,” James Marsh, HR consultant at Symposium, comments on EY’s changes to graduate recruitment. “But for me it is about the business community increasingly losing faith in our education system as a whole. Competency-based recruitment, apprenticeships, etc. are all a means of rendering academic qualifications secondary or, in some cases, meaningless. Companies are investing in their own assessment strategies and solutions because A-levels and degrees are no longer true indicators of potential.”

Representatives at EY say that academic achievement still has a place in assessing talent but that its reach is limited.

“Our assessment tools are designed to look at a candidate’s innate strengths: what they naturally enjoy doing and are good at,” says Maggie Stilwell. “We believe this will give many more students the chance to demonstrate their future potential as well as providing a more inclusive testing process.

“We still value academic qualifications and they remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but they are now one of the last things we look at rather than the first.”

Three years spent on an undergraduate degree will ensure graduates enter the workplace with essential soft skills such as teamwork, leadership and initiative, creative problem solving and time management. However, with the same true of practical experience, the meaning of education will likely be challenged in coming years as options for vocational training continue to grow.

Title image courtesy of Mic445 via Flickr.

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About Steff Humm

Steff joined the HRreview editorial team in November 2014. A former event coordinator and manager, Steff has spent several years working in online journalism. She is a graduate of Middlessex University with a BA in Television Production and will complete a Master's degree in Journalism from the University of Westminster in the summer of 2015.

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