Image: Saulo Mohana / Unsplash
Image: Saulo Mohana / Unsplash

Firms ask applicants for parents’ alma maters to improve diversity

A recent study has found that students applying for summer internships are being asked whether their parents went to university. Questions of this nature have been used by firms to improve workforce diversity.

The report by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), which represents over 500 of the UK’s leading graduate employers, aimed to combat critics which suggested that leading graduate employers favour students from middle-class backgrounds.

In 2012, 13% of graduate recruiters asked applicants questions regarding socio-economic background. Since then, this figure has increased threefold. 45% of companies in the UK – including firms in the banking, accountancy, law, retail and engineering sectors – ask questions of this genre.

Parental attendance of university is most commonly used to determine socio-economic background. Other determinants include whether the applicant attended a state school, whether they qualified for free school meals, and their parents’ occupations.

This practice was introduced after increasing pressure on the UK’s biggest employers to improve company diversity. Critics have since expressed concern over well-educated students being penalised when applying for internships and jobs.

Former government adviser and chair of the Campaign for Real Education, Chris McGovern, said: “We cannot appoint second rate candidates on the basis that they have come from a deprived background. What we actually need to do is raise standards rather than foisting politically correct ideas on to employers.”

He suggested that some employers might pay “lip service” to the attempt of increasing diversity by asking applicants to fill out forms regarding their backgrounds and then “throwing it in the bin”, while others may use it to “penalise” and “discriminate” against middle class students.

What we actually need to do is raise standards rather than foisting politically correct ideas on to employers

– Chris McGovern

Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive Officer of the ISE, attributed recent discussions regarding diversity to “changes in society and policy”. He explained that the need for major firms to increase diversity is “partly politically driven”, and is also triggered by widening participation in higher education.

He said: “You do have employers now using contextualised data. They don’t do positive dissociation, but what they do is use that data to make a level playing field.

“It is not about rejecting an Eton-educated candidate to let someone else through. It is about letting both through [and recognising that] someone from a lower socio-economic background may not have had the same advantages.”

He added that employers desire diversity so that they can find the best talent, overcoming a “pale, male and stale” image by “getting it right at graduate entry level”. He also emphasised that improving employee diversity is one of biggest concerns for the ISE during recruitment.

In June, The Daily Telegraph revealed that ministers have published a series of socio-economic questions for major companies and the Civil Service to use when employing staff. Tens of thousands of civil servants will be asked these questions in the Civil Service’s annual “people survey” in October 2018.

The government has stated that there are no plans to make such checks a legal requirement for firms. Instead, similar schemes regarding gender pay have been made compulsory by the law.


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