A student who excels at university, racks up plenty of work experience and is awarded a first-class degree might expect to be able to have the pick of graduate jobs when they leave.
But a sizeable proportion of the most sought-after employers are demanding a minimum number of Ucas entry tariff points at A level or the equivalent - and the grades they require are rising.
In the eyes of critics, this hurdle limits social mobility and also suggests that employers do not trust university degree classes to signal minimum standards.
According to a survey of 100 graduate recruiters released in June, a quarter of employers specify a minimum Ucas tariff, ranging from 260 to 340 points, the equivalent of BCC to AAB at A level.
This tariff is higher than the figures the previous year, when recruiters wanted 240-320 Ucas points, said Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, which produced The Graduate Market in 2013 survey.
A separate poll, The AGR Graduate Recruitment Survey 2013, published by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, puts the proportion of employers requiring a minimum Ucas tariff at 35.3 per cent.
According to Stephen Isherwood, the AGR’s chief executive, this is because firms do not believe that a first or a 2:1 indicates a common standard.
“The reality [is] the degree classification system was never designed to be consistent between institutions,” he said.
It is “impossible to compare institution with institution”, Mr Isherwood argued.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents post-1992 universities, said: “This is an old-fashioned and lazy approach to recruitment that will lead to employers missing out on talented and entrepreneurial graduates who are keen to get on in life.”
Hurdle to mobility
The use of Ucas tariff points was sharply criticised in a report by Alan Milburn, the government’s “social mobility tsar”, which demanded that “all employers should stop this practice immediately”.
“The tariff was not designed for this purpose and using it in this way disadvantages older learners who may have taken their qualifications before 2001, as well as those who may have taken less traditional routes into university,” says University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility, which was released last October.
At KPMG, one of the UK’s “Big Four” accountancy firms, the “general rule” is that graduate recruits must have 320 tariff points - gained from their top three A-level results - as well as a B in GCSE English and maths.
Matthew Parker, a graduate recruitment manager at the firm, said that A levels “illustrate an ability to get to a certain standard”, adding that starting work at KPMG was a “completely different environment to [students’] experience at university”.
He and Mr Isherwood stressed that the Ucas tariff rule was not set in stone, and could be relaxed if there were extenuating circumstances that explained why an applicant did not have the right grades.