By Sarah Cowan, Policy and Programmes Manager and Peter Seddon, Policy Lead – Talent and Skills, NCUB

“Contextualised recruitment is expensive, strength-based recruitment works, but competency-based recruitment is what’s used,” was the message we heard throughout our recent series of roundtables on social mobility.

Recruitment, for both businesses and universities, is the great Gordian knot of skills. How do you tackle social mobility and unearth the best talent when they are hidden beneath layers of inequality and behind jarring recruitment strategies?

For many NCUB members social mobility is already a priority. Both universities and businesses are large employers with complex talent needs and vast recruitment processes at multiple levels. They have more in common than they have in difference, yet as large organisations with devolved structures and responsibilities their social mobility efforts and activities can happen in isolation of each both within their organisation, and across the talent pipeline.

To tackle this, NCUB brought together the expertise of our business and university members to a series of roundtable discussions to explore innovative, cross-sectoral approaches to social mobility; and exchange knowledge and best practice between industry and academia, to support better outcomes for all.

The early bird catches the talented worm (work experience)

We know that social capital provides greater work experience opportunities, and that work-experience increases the likelihood of securing graduate level positions. Thankfully, there is some wonderful work tackling this inequality being undertaken by the Social Mobility Foundation. One+1 is a scheme which encourages organisation to match the placements that they may offer to their own children, friends’ children or clients’ children with a placement for an SMF student, the +1.

A range of work experience opportunities not only help make students more employable, they also positively impact on attainment – early exposure to the labour market helps build resilience and understanding of business acumen. Many of our business members are capitalising on this by using their work-experience candidates to access and develop talent for graduate recruitment programmes.

What was encouraging to hear, is the number of businesses who understood how this talent pipeline fitted in with their commitment to diversifying their workforce. Some businesses are clearly more cautious than others, but those who have fully-committed are adopting programmes such as One+1, as well as working with local, less privileged schools to offer access based on factors other than advantage.

Merit over marks

Unconditional offers spend more time being demonised as circumventing the rules than applauded for their relationship with widening participation. Either way, they stem from an idea that some students are worth breaking the rules for. This same idea produces contextualised recruitment, a social mobility tool which holds real power and potential impact. During our roundtables, we heard from both universities and businesses who use contextualised recruitment; some rely on one tool, others use a mix of approaches, and some don’t contextualise at all.

Contextualised recruiting allows an organisation to consider a prospective candidate as a whole, rather than as a list of exam grades and job titles. The most popular tools used by big business allow for weighting by a number of factors: home postcode, school attended, free school meal eligibility, POLAR data 1 , care experience, status as refugee or asylum seeker. The tool then produces two scores – a measure of disadvantage and a measure of performance. This allows organisations to compare applicant’s success against their socio-economic peers, rather than against a pool which is likely, in HE and graduate recruitment, to be biased by advantage.

For universities working with contextualised recruitment who make adapted or unconditional offers to students, getting a talented but less advantaged student in is only half the battle. The frustration is two-fold: what support do they need (and will accept) once they’re enrolled, and how to get businesses to see past the A-Levels the student doesn’t have, to the degree they do?

There’s this intake, and then there’s that one

Once accepted, there are various programmes of work to help widening participation students (WP) acclimatise to the HE environment and to support attainment. But there is a danger of ‘othering’ students by trying to offer help to those most likely to need it. Our business members also found this; most hires from low socio-economic backgrounds are not comfortable identifying as such, so how best to support them?

Here we heard various tactics, from mentoring and peer support in businesses, to targeted careers support and additional technical teaching in universities. For many, the most successful interventions were those which were embedded in the learning or employment process as a general offering to all students. Some of our members are being very clever in the way that these universal interventions are actually targeted at cohorts which contain a high proportion of WP students. This allows universities to offer extra support to those who might most need it, without requiring any additional effort or self-selection from the students.

Some approaches were based on clear strategic priorities while others appear opportunistic where project funding becomes available. The Office for Students, the regulator for Higher Education, will expect action from universities where systemic issues are identified. This will create opportunities for collaboration with employers, which is crucial for this challenge – despite having the same goal, similar methods and facing the same obstacles, there were problematic gaps in knowledge sharing between universities and businesses.

Problematic Prospects

Throughout the roundtables we heard time and time again from universities frustrated that their WP students aren’t being recruited by big businesses because of A-Level results. A university admissions team might ensure talented students are not held back by subjectively low grades, accept them into a programme which prepares them for work and award them a good degree, for graduate schemes to then be closed to them based on those same grades for which an allowance has already been made.

In addition to the gaps in knowledge institution bias is also a problem. Lower tariff institutions expressed frustration at their efforts into working with a range of employers only for some businesses to decline to visit their campus. These universities have a higher proportion of disadvantaged students and positive indicators for quality of teaching and the student experience but cannot get the employer to see past the label of mission group or their historical connections with certain universities. Thankfully, this is a changing picture and the tide appears to be turning; the Social Mobility Foundation and Social Mobility Commission produce a Social Mobility Index each year which, in 2018 shows the percentage of visits made to Russell Group universities this year was 56%, down from 70% last year. And, for the first time, institutions such as the University of Birmingham and Aston University were visited more than the University of Oxford.

Students – do we want them competent or valuable?

After an organisation has utilised its work-experience pipelines, visited chosen universities, and opened graduate schemes, recruitment methods take their turn in the social mobility spotlight. Competency-based recruitment has been used for so long that most people won’t realise that ‘standard’ interview questions like these have a name. After all, surely all interview approaches assess your competency to do the job?

Asking candidates to “give an example of…”, “tell me about a time when…”, “in the past, how have you handled…” is asking them to use their life experiences to justify their suitability for the job. Innocuous on the surface, but problematic in nature. Businesses are starting to recognise and react to the fact that competency-based recruitment is favourable to students from more advantaged backgrounds. A student who has greater social capital will have had greater encouragement and opportunities to take-up extra-curricular activities, to travel, and to undertake work-experience in expensive locations and competitive industries.

To tackle this, there is movement towards strength-based recruitment, sometimes referred to as value-based. Seeking to understand and identify the values and characteristics of candidates, strength-based recruitment offers candidates varying scenarios related to the company and assesses their approach to navigating them. Strength-based recruitment has the advantage of recruiting candidates who are fit for the role, both in intellect and personality, rather than those who have been afforded the opportunity to do something similar before. They also reduce unconscious bias by reducing the likelihood of recruiters favouring candidates ‘like them’ based on shared experience and background. Businesses at our roundtables reported on the process of moving partially or entirely over to strength-based recruitment, though they anecdotally estimated that 60% of big businesses are still entirely reliant on competencies in application and interviews.

Policy and needed action

This is clearly an area of interest to successive Governments, and one issue is how social mobility is measured. Measurements from the Social Mobility Commission and Social Mobility Foundation in their Social Mobility Index are positive drivers of change by benchmarking employers against good standards. For universities, the metrics landscape is already a crowded and convoluted place. Attendees at our roundtables questioned the usefulness of existing metrics and whether they drive the right kinds of activity in universities – many measure outcome rather than value added, and reducing and defining all students to singular outcomes benefits no-one.

Addressing deep-seated issues around social mobility will require coordinated action, and NCUB will continue to engage with key stakeholders to make sure our members’ views are being taken into account. This includes the work of the Social Mobility Commission whose role it is to promote and monitor progress of Social Mobility. We’re also working on the ways that social mobility intersects and interacts with the wider landscape; degree apprenticeships, accelerated degrees and potential changes to the funding system all have the potential power to radically change social structures. Understanding them is key to ensuring we, as a collective of universities and business, plot a route for widening access to higher education while broadening the talent pool for businesses.


Published: 6 December 2018

1. POLAR data measures the proportion of the young population that participate in higher education by area.?