Anne-Marie Imafidon leads the line up at Wonkhe event on diversity & graduate outcomes

March 16, 2021

This morning, some of the UK’s top educational luminaries gathered to discuss the topic of equality, education and jobs. The virtual event examined the relationship between privilege, academic achievement and employment outcomes, and set out ways that the education industry and commercial organisations can improve equality of access to post-university career opportunities.

Revealing that businesses have found it tough to connect with students and grads during the pandemic, Handshake’s David Shull warned that employers must not rely on existing networks which entrench existing privilege and exclude candidates from less well-connected backgrounds. It’s vital, he says, that employers connect with students from a diverse range of backgrounds, and from a diverse range of institutions.

Stemettes founder Anne-Marie Imafidon agrees – it’s crucial she says, for organisations to demonstrate inclusivity – not just to ensure equality for grads, but to fuel the workforce with diverse skills and approaches. She says: “It’s promising that organisations have realised that diversity makes business sense. The more diverse a team is, the better it performs and the more innovative it can be.” 

On the flip side, Anne-Marie also talked about instances where a limited workforce has led to failure. The introduction of a period tracking app designed by men, which limited the period tracking window to ten days, was a particularly powerful example of this closed way of thinking.

Confidence is crucial too, agreed this morning’s speakers – and this comes from formative opportunities. The earlier students have opportunities to access the working world, the more motivated they’ll be and the more chance for success they’ll have. This is an area where Handshake helps too – not just enabling students to make connections with employers at the end of their courses, but facilitating student-industry collaboration all the way through the learning journey.

Louise Ashley, Bridge Group Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London looked in-depth at elite organisations’ recruitment processes. More than 50 per cent of partners at UK law firms are white, middle class and  privately educated, she says, and 90 per cent of leaders at financial services institutions are male.  

Part of the reason for this pattern is the exclusive relationships with firms these have with elite universities. This is changing she says – and some of the myths that perpetuate this approach (for example that Russell Group university students are uniquely talented) are being challenged, but there’s work still to be done.

The issue of geography reared its head here too.  "Many first generation graduates from non elite universities lack the confidence to be geographically mobile” commented Louise. “One final year, very capable student from the East Midlands recently told me that they had never been to London. Such an individual would not be confident to even apply for a job at an elite employer, especially outside of his immediate region."

It’s not just about elite professions, says Ann-Marie Bathmaker, Professor of Vocational and Higher Education, University of Birmingham; social inequalities are evident right across the working world.

David Shull agrees, but paints a positive picture of potential progress. Indeed, he says, although COVID has exacerbated equalities in some ways, it has also provided a real catalyst for the industry to change the way things are done.

In a lively and insightful morning, the Wonkhe team asserted the importance of addressing inequality issues collaboratively, and posited that initiatives will ultimately fail if we’re not working together as an industry. For us, events like this are a great starting point – sharing views, success stories and warnings, so that we can all move forward together, towards a more equitable approach to graduate employment.

Handshake's Research

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