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Diversity in workplace will shift backwards due to tightening university grade requirements

It was recently announced that a number of the most prestigious universities in the UK have raised the requirements for their degree courses for this year to the newly introduced A* grade. To attain the A* grade, students are now required to achieve more than 90% in each of their papers in their second year exams.

With statistics showing that last summer 17.9% of pupils in private schools achieved the new A* grade compared with only 5.8% from comprehensive schools, it is inevitable that the impact of this increased requirement will affect the career progression of students from less privileged backgrounds. These statistics immediately highlight the advantage that students at fee paying private schools have in achieving higher grades as a matter of course, and therefore a greater probability of securing places at the top academic institutions. With a significant number of ethnic minority students coming from less privileged backgrounds and lacking the access to private education, there is a very real risk that Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students hopeful of securing a place at an elite university are at a significant disadvantage.

With evidence that the Russell Group Universities are failing to accept a proportionate number of BAME students, this latest change to entry requirements is further cause for concern that under-representation of the country’s diverse population will continue within the country’s top academic institutions. It is therefore essential that universities are made aware of this and are encouraged to ensure the best talent from across all of the UK is identified and nurtured.

The impact of this doesn’t just stop at graduate recruitment. It is well known, and proven, that recruiters from top level companies and the traditional ‘high-earning’ professions target graduates from the elite universities in the hopes of finding tomorrow’s business and country leaders. If the pool of talent from which they are recruiting is not diversified, it will mean the organisations of tomorrow will be entirely unrepresentative of a society that will be made up of 50% ethnic minorities by 2051, as predicted by the University of Leeds.   

This problem is further compounded by the fact that many ethnic minority students are unaware of the level of importance employers place on the choice of university when recruiting and may not consider working towards a place at a Russell Group institution over any other university. For this issue to be addressed, two things need to happen. First, the Russell Group universities could look to be more engaged with the BAME student population in schools. For example, we would suggest focusing on mentoring or fast-tracking schemes to ensure that places are open to pupils from a cross-section of schools – not just fee-paying ones. Second, businesses need to acknowledge that they are missing out on a pool of highly skilled talent and act now to widen their recruitment drive to beyond the Russell Group of universities.

The fact remains that BAME students aspiring to successful careers and associated higher earning potential are prevented from achieving their ambitions at the first hurdle of choosing, and getting into, the ‘right’ university. Part of this is a lack of understanding on what AS level or degree course they should choose, recently highlighted in Andy Gardner’s guidelines for the Institute of Career Guidance and the Russell Group, published last Friday. The handbook acknowledges that the leading universities overwhelmingly favour students who study traditional subjects at A-level. This is often unknown to students from all backgrounds, who are the first member in their family to go to university or have no access to relevant career guidance.

A picture of an overall lack of understanding of how to make your decisions work for you is building here. Another aspect, is a ‘lack of understanding of the importance of work experience in increasing their chances of getting that all important first foothold in their chosen profession. The reality is that "who you know", your networks, and the ability to work for free are the key stepping stones to bolstering your CV and getting that first job. And this is all on top of having a good degree from an elite university! This was highlighted in a recent BBC documentary, "Who gets the best jobs?", which explored the increasing emphasis on unpaid internships and access to relevant networks to enter certain professions, such as finance, journalism and law. The fact of the matter is that these informal protocols and practices are still very much limited to a small pool of individuals in the UK with access to financial support or expert advice.

The importance and positive impact of schemes focused on mentoring in boosting aspiration and providing effective career guidance for people from a BAME background can not be underestimated; the effect has been highlighted in journals as revered as the Harvard Business Review. Research points out that the people from ethnic minority backgrounds who have advanced the furthest in their career have had the opportunity to access a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors who nurture their professional development. Without access to this type of network or relevant mentors for guidance, a large proportion of people from an ethnic minority background will still not make it to management positions, and companies and organisations will not be representative of the audience with whom they wish to do business. In fact, this is a truism for any high-achieving teenager that isn’t exposed in their every day lives to people who work in the traditional or high-paid professions themselves and can mentor them on how to succeed.

We are increasingly seeing that the majority of recruits into the traditional professions like politics, finance and law are public school and ‘elite’ university educated, and have access to mentors within their cultural networks. The social mobility gap is widening, and the competition for university spaces and top graduate jobs is about to get a lot tougher. With these universities tightening their grade requirements the risk is that the diversity in the workplace for the UK is going to shift backwards in spite of the progress it has already made. Action needs to be taken now for universities and businesses to recognise this and put in place mentoring and recruitment schemes that ensure places are open to all, not just the few.

Sandra Kerr (pictured) is national director of Race for Opportunity