BBC’s Oxbridge shift spotlights firms’ educational diversity drives

Employers seeking ‘diversity of thought’ and ‘relevance’ end reliance on English university hierarchy for hiring decisions

October 30, 2020
Film set
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The BBC’s plans to reduce its recruitment of Oxbridge graduates have spotlighted the efforts that employers are making to mitigate the effects of social disadvantage, such as contextualising academic results and using “university blind” recruitment.

Tim Davie, the new BBC director general, said this month that the broadcaster must stop “just taking people from a certain academic track”. A BBC source told the Daily Mail: “There’s a wider gene pool than the Oxbridge recruitment conveyor belt.”

Higher Education Statistics Agency data show that, whatever progress is being made, Cambridge, Oxford and other hyper-selective universities have been falling short of their benchmarks on admissions for state school pupils and those from low-participation backgrounds.

Those failings lend weight to the approaches taken by employers seeking to diversify the educational backgrounds of their recruits.

Deloitte UK, which hires about 1,000 graduates annually, uses school- and university-blind interviews, where the educational institutions a candidate attended are not disclosed.

Meanwhile, other employers, such as law firm Clifford Chance, have opted for contextual recruitment that takes account of applicants’ social backgrounds, for example by giving extra credit for A-level grades achieved at a school with generally lower attainment.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said the “two distinct approaches” of university-blind and contextual recruitment were part of “increasingly contested social mobility battles over how to select talent”, with the former minimising information on candidates, the latter maximising it.

“We urgently need more evidence on which approaches are the most effective in diversifying intakes,” he added.

The BBC declined to add any detail about what kinds of new recruitment processes it would adopt – which leaves big questions about the relative merits of approaches it could take.

Georgia Greer, Deloitte UK’s head of student recruitment, said the professional services firm had introduced university-blind interviews in 2015 to prioritise “inclusion”. In addition, for the campuses that it visits for graduate recruitment events, the firm opted to be more “proactive” than the traditional milk round by including “non-Russell Group universities”, she added (the firm says it is “targeting” 43 such universities).

Although the name of the university a candidate attended is included in their application, mainly based on an online assessment, this is used only for “reporting and monitoring” and “doesn’t filter into any of the onward assessment process”, said Ms Greer.

At interview, the university a candidate attended “isn’t pertinent to the assessment that the interviewer is doing; what’s pertinent is what the student brings to that interview…and how they demonstrate their strengths, their potential”, she added.

Ms Greer argued that educational diversity can bring vital “diversity of thought”, in qualities such as “collaboration, resilience, creativity”, which “could exist in many different places” in terms of the universities graduates have attended.

Deloitte UK uses both contextual and university-blind recruitment, said Ms Greer.

The UK Civil Service also uses university-blind recruitment, while a recent survey of 150 recruiters by the Institute of Student Employers found that 17 per cent take this approach.

Nick Hillman, the Higher Education Policy Institute director, said his view was that “a better route” than university-blind recruitment “would be for people’s full education history to be open to sight and for employers not to adopt quotas for different educational institutions”. “Instead, employers would make a properly rounded assessment of each job applicant and not be bamboozled by the name of the university attended,” he added.

Professor Elliot Major said his latest book on social mobility advocates “an alternative approach” to university-blind and contextual processes – “assessing applicants against a specific threshold to gauge whether they have the potential and achievement to study on a degree course or enter a workplace. This is the ‘good enough’ approach.”

“Then other criteria could be used to select [students and candidates]: assessing their social backgrounds and shaping the class as is routinely done in the United States, or by other means,” he added.

“One of the defining characteristics of countries, like the UK and US, which have relatively low social mobility levels is the incredibly high employment returns to degrees compared with other routes,” Professor Elliot Major continued. “That’s why diversifying university intakes is so important. But I do think we will see more moves by employers to recruit from non-university routes.”

Advertising and marketing agency Ogilvy UK, which in 2018 dropped its graduate recruitment route in favour of an apprenticeship scheme open to both graduates and non-graduates, has taken an approach along those lines.

Helen Matthews, the firm’s chief people officer, said there were “many brilliantly creative young people” who do not want to, or feel they cannot afford to, attend university.

She said Ogilvy’s recruitment policy was not a “binary” choice between graduates and non-graduates and added of the benefit of educational diversity: “For us to be relevant, for our clients to have the best work, it’s about representing lots of different viewpoints. Bringing that collective difference together will nearly always spark the absolute best ideas.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

Given the BBC's box ticking habits I doubt many working class white British will be recruited, the latest edicts to the LBGTQ+ employee's at the BBC illustrate just how crazy things are getting. https://metro.co.uk/2020/10/30/bbc-no-bias-rules-lgbtq-13505546 Defunding the BBC and making it a subscription service that has to survive instead of fleecing pensioners (and everyone else) would be a good start.
Good idea. Why don't they also ignore students' academic records and achievements, and focus solely on their social and ethnic background?
There is nothing wrong with fairness, and appointments made to the best person available; in fact this should be key. However, discrimination one way or another is very wrong. To me there seems to be a political agenda by the BBC alongside.
Yes it is a complete scandal the way the BBC is infested with the Oxbridge mafia. Whenever they interview anyone I quickly wikipedia them and 9 times out of 10 they have a strong Oxbridge connections. It is as though the BBC only believes the Oxbridge view of the world is important. Surely there must be some research exposing the Oxbridge bias of the BBC especially in the Oxbridge connections of nearly all their interviews.

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