Opinion

Will PwC's scrapping of A-level criteria lead other UK employers to follow suit?

6 min read

05 May 2015

In an interesting announcement, PwC has said it is getting rid of the UCAS tariff as an entry criteria for its graduate scheme.

The company was voted the UK’s Top Graduate Employer in The Times Top 100 survey for the 12th year running – determined by a survey of 18,000 undergraduates. This isn’t then a decision to be disregarded, and it could pave the way for other employers to reevaluate their own recruitment strategies.

In an official blog on its website, the accountancy company said that “by placing too much emphasis on UCAS scores, employers will miss out on key talent from disadvantaged backgrounds, who can perform less well at school”.

It hopes the decision will “drive radical changes in the social mobility and diversity of the professional services’ industry”, and how companies assess potential more broadly. Previously, along with being on course for a 2:1 degree, applicants to most graduate positions at PwC needed a minimum UCAS score of 300 points – an A* grade is given 140 points, while an E gets the minimum of 40 points.

It does though, still leave questions over recruitment of those who don’t go to university at all. While the proportion of British 18 year-olds applying to university keeps on growing, there are still significant numbers who don’t follow that path after school. 

A study by England’s Higher Education Funding Council found that school leavers in many areas weren’t moving onto university – in Corringham and Fobbing, Thurrock, Essex, 25.5 per cent of school leavers went to university over a five-year period. This was 17.7 percentage points lower than the 43.4 per cent who would be expected to go given the academic performance of pupils. This research indicated that many rural areas were essentially academic “cold spots”, where it’s trickier for students to access courses.

This draws attention to the limitations of relying on a degree as a distinguishing factor in recruitment. As a non-negotiable factor, it still doesn’t provide flexibility for situations like those explored by England’s Higher Education Funding Council – nor does it consider the idea that many skills and worthwhile qualities for a role can be found outside of a university course. Candidates outside the initial remit may still be a good fit, but are automatically overlooked without the degree. There still leaves much to address in terms of social mobility.

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As the PwC blog said, its relaxing of the UCAS criteria could do a great deal for those who “have gone on to perform well at university and have all-round proven capabilities”, but doesn’t help those who aren’t headed for university in the first place.

The decision does though put the spotlight back on a long-running issue within the UK regarding social mobility. In 2014, there was a four per cent increase in the number of applicants to UK universities, despite a small decline in the number of 18 year-olds in the population overall. Young people from the worst-off areas across England are now nearly twice as likely to apply to university than they were ten years ago. The UCAS information also indicated wide gaps in participation and a drop in the number of young men applying to university, compared with women.

Les Ebdon, director of the Office of Fair Access, said this still showed that some pupils were being held back. “Young people from the most advantaged areas are still two and a half times more likely to apply for higher education than those from areas where participation is low. This gap hinders efforts to increase social mobility and addressing it must remain a priority,” he explained.

The accountancy firm’s graduate programme is highly sought-after – applications rose to 25,573 last year, with 17 applications for every role, and this is expected to rise following the adjustment to its candidate eligibility. The change to PwC’s recruitment policy is, despite its caveats, a step forward.

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Gaenor Bagley, head of people at PwC, said: “Removing the UCAS criteria will create a fairer and more modern system in which students are selected on their own merit, irrespective of their background or where they are from.”

The company will continue to use psychometric assessments when recruiting graduates and school leavers, which will encompass numerical, verbal and logical reasoning. It will also still use the UCAS tariff for filtering applications for the firm’s school leaver roles, employer-led degree programme, as well as “a small minority” of graduate roles, where particular subject matter expertise is a requirement.

As a leading graduate employer it will be particularly interesting to see whether the other members of the “big four” follow suit – currently the minimum of 300 UCAS points is still a necessity for most positions at KPMG, Deloitte and EY.

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said that using UCAS points as a specific requirement, “is a blunt tool and a barrier to social mobility”. He hopes that this will lead to other graduate employers also adjusting their recruitment policies. 

Image: Shutterstock