Skip to content

Social mobility and problems with the student recruitment process

Social mobility and problems with the student recruitment process

Here at Headstart, we’re passionate about improving social mobility. We want to find ways to champion underprivileged candidates — people who may not have a protected characteristic but struggle to access the same opportunities as more privileged peers.

We recently hosted a social mobility panel discussion with recruiting experts Rowena Bach and Rebecca Foden, to get their insights on how we can improve social mobility through student recruitment.

They talked us through how the student recruitment process currently hinders social mobility — and crucially, the ways recruiters and organizations can work to fix these problems. Read on for the highlights and key insights.

The state of social mobility in student recruitment 

Pre-COVID, social mobility in the UK had stalled. And the pandemic only exacerbated the problem.

🗯 The impact of COVID has been horrific in terms of social mobility… If you’re from a privileged background, for example, you’re more likely to have had at least £100, if not more, spent to top up your education in the last few months. That gap in knowledge and academic performance is going to stretch the gap in society wider.

Rowena Bach, Digital Account Manager, Rare Recruitment

Now, more than ever, we need to examine the impact of student recruitment processes on social mobility. We have to avoid making that gap in opportunities even more pronounced.

Giving opportunities to underrepresented candidates is obviously the right and fair thing to do. But closing the social mobility gap provides significant advantages to businesses too.

Studies show that low social mobility will cost the UK economy £140 billion per year over the next four decades. Even a modest increase in social mobility could increase the UK’s GDP growth by 2% to 4% every year.

We already know that diversity leads to better financial performance. But increasingly, a commitment to diversity, including social mobility, can benefit talent acquisition too.

🗯 I think that young people now want equity, they want transparency, and they want to work for organizations that have true equality, and they’re not tokenistic. I feel that the pandemic is really illuminating where those social gaps are.

Rebecca Foden, Head of Student Recruitment, Ernst & Young

It’s clear that there’s a lot of progress to be made in the field of social mobility — but, as we’ll see, the right student recruitment practices can really make a difference.

Problems with the student recruitment process and how to fix them

✱ Prioritizing talent from ‘top tier’ universities

⚠️ The issue

When recruiting graduates and processing a large number of applications, organizations often display a preference for particular universities. In the UK, that often means Oxbridge and Russell Group institutions.

🗯 It’s still predominantly a process, so companies lean on the safety of a priority list of organizations because it’s safe; they’ve recruited people that have been successful from those organizations before.

Rowena Bach

While this approach can streamline the process for institutions, it doesn’t support social mobility. We know that graduates who have been to one of the top universities in the country are more likely to come from a privileged background.

Leaning too heavily on a priority university list automatically discounts a large number of less privileged graduates.


A Report on Social Mobility in Recruitment

🔧 The fix

Start by reassessing the list of institutions you recruit graduates from and the logic of having a predetermined list.

Do those universities really provide the best candidates? They may be prestigious, but are they the only places students can develop the skills and experience that matter? Try adding schools in less privileged communities to your list and expanding the talent pool.

✱ Blaming slow progress on embedded systems and process

⚠️ The issue

Organizations — especially big ones — are complex. Changing old systems and creating an organization-wide ethos for social mobility recruitment can be challenging.

🗯 Every organization that I’ve worked in has been taking positive steps… but these are micro steps, because what we’re dealing with here is hundreds of years of legacy. Part of the problem is systemic.

Rebecca Foden

We don’t believe the problems around old systems should be a catch-all excuse for slow social mobility progress. Small changes are not enough, and we’d encourage organizations to be more ambitious.

🔧 The fix

Simplifying the process can help to promote change.

By stripping the student recruitment process down to its basics — questioning your entry requirements and the number of hoops you expect graduates to jump through — you instantly widen your potential talent pool and remove unnecessary barriers for underprivileged students.

Of course, this approach has to take into account application volume. If you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of applications for entry-level roles, you may need to invest in time-saving technology that helps you simplify and streamline your processes.

Headstart can help you process thousands of applications quickly and consistently. Learn how.

✱ A supposed lack of diverse applicants

⚠️ The issue

Some businesses say it is challenging to hire with social mobility in mind because they don’t get many applications from diverse candidates.

While this is most certainly a reality for some organizations, it’s not an excuse for complacency.

There is so much a business can do to attract a more socio-economically diverse range of graduates. Often the problem is not a pipeline problem and a lack of diverse talent, but a lack of effort by organizations to seek out that talent and to remove barriers for application.

🔧 The fix

As an organization, you have to be proactive about attracting diverse candidates — you can’t just expect them to come to you.

You have to build diversity into your organization and your employer brand.

🗯 Any employer that’s aspiring to hire diverse talent needs to affect change at the top. Ask yourself, what representative role models are there within the business?

Rebecca Foden

Change needs to be apparent at the top and throughout the rest of an organization. Improving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has to be part of everyone’s job description — not just DEI leaders and recruitment.

Every employee should be doing their bit to reach out to, mentor, and support diverse communities and candidates. This will help make your brand more relatable and attractive to a broader talent pool.

✱ Expecting all types of candidates to feel comfortable with the same student recruitment process

⚠️ The issue

Candidates from different social, cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds have different experience levels and comfort with standard student recruitment practices.

🗯 The things that are really important are cultural and social capital. And it’s those things that you gain in spades when you are in a privileged environment. You understand the subtleties of interaction – eye contact, intonation, use of accent, and use of language.

Rowena Bach

From application forms to group assessments to one-on-one interviews, underprivileged candidates are more likely to feel nervous. They are more likely to underperform in all stages of student recruitment.

🔧 The fix

Try to move away from traditional student recruitment practices.

For example, you can send assessment and interview information in advance.

Remember that for many graduates, this will be their first experience of the recruitment process. They may not have professional role models to advise them on recruitment etiquette, so a few words of advice on the process and your expectations can help level the playing field.

You could trial an experiential assessment process that puts candidates in a real-world situation rather than a formal interview room.

You should also examine recruiter biases by conducting unconscious bias training. Recruiters should try to forget what they expect to hear at an interview and simply listen to the person in front of them.

Changing processes to create life-changing opportunities

By adopting the ideas above and improving student recruitment practices, organizations can have a big impact on social mobility.

Want to hear more from our recruitment experts on how recruiters can level the playing field?

Watch the recording of our panel discussion with Rowena Bach and Rebecca Foden on-demand here.

Get HR Insights In Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter for original insights and bias-busting resources, every month.

What is conscious leadership, and how can it help make recruitment more equitable?

Hard as you might try, it’s very difficult to build an inclusive organization without switched-on leaders who are committed to…

Why creating a DEI team is only half the battle

You know that focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion is important for your company. You’ve probably seen the stats a…