Graduate recruiters have started running apprenticeship schemes in the hope of attracting promising young people from poor backgrounds – and of reducing their reliance on the alumni from a handful of Russell Group universities.
But some have been violating the spirit of such apprenticeships by attempting to advertise them only to private school pupils, a conference has heard.
Sarah-Jane McQueen, sales manager at the Milkround, a forum for graduate vacancies, told Times Higher Education that it was “common” for firms to ask for their apprenticeships to be advertised by email only to those in the private sector.
The practice was particularly prevalent in banking and finance, she added.
Ms McQueen said that some recruiters had introduced apprenticeships as a token gesture and wanted to ensure that they were open only “to people their sons and daughters go to school with”.
However, she stressed that the Milkround did not allow this kind of targeted promotion.
She told the conference, Improving Graduate Employability, held in London on 7 November, that one “big four” firm had refused to work with the forum on apprentice recruitment after the forum declined to filter potential candidates by school type,
“How do we combat that ignorance, snobbery and elitism?” she asked delegates during a question-and-answer session.
Ms McQueen did not specify the industry to which she was referring in her comments.
Spokesmen for the “big four” accountancy firms – PwC, Deloitte, EY and KPMG – all denied engaging in such behaviour.
But her comments may alarm many in the week that Sir John Major, the former prime minister, warned that the influence of the privately educated or affluent middle class on the “upper echelons of power” was “truly shocking”.
The conference also heard from Kate Purcell, emeritus professor at the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick, who said that the teaching of employability skills at university had made the contest to secure graduate jobs “increasingly difficult” because recruiters had so many polished applicants to choose from.
“Possibly [this] makes the kind of school you go to rather more pertinent,” she said.
She also predicted that employers’ “irrational” use of A‑level grades to choose between graduates would become more common as there was an increasing “excess of demand” for jobs.
A quarter of the most sought-after employers are specifying a minimum number of Ucas points, Times Higher Education reported in July, regardless of how well applicants perform at university.
Terry Dray, director of graduate advancement and employer engagement at Liverpool John Moores University, told delegates that it was now compulsory for students to write a one-page “self-awareness statement” about their skills, an exercise that counted for 10 per cent of a single module.
But David Winter, head of the careers consultancy C2, which is owned by the University of London, said he feared a “boom and bust” in employability spending.
The academy was “throwing money” at internships, work placements and skills awards because universities were “panicking” over the unknown impact of higher tuition fees and greater competition for students, he said.
But when the sector “settles down”, vice-chancellors could end up questioning the need to spend so much on employability, he added.
Mr Winter also warned that specialist careers advisers were “dangerous” for undergraduates.
Students were handed career information “on a plate” by such advisers, meaning that they would not learn how to find it for themselves, he said.