This blog has been contributed by Professor Tristram Hooley, Chief Research Officer of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE). The ISE is an employer association that is focused on entry-level and early-career recruitment.
When you work or study in the education system, it can be very difficult to gain a perspective on how the outputs of the system are viewed by those outside. Students are sold a simplified version of human capital theory to motivate them – work hard at school and university and you will be rewarded once you get into employment. Good grades are often portrayed as the gateway to decent work and a successful career.
But, this simple narrative is increasingly being called into question, and there is a growing debate amongst employers as to whether qualifications really serve as a guarantor of good workers.
Using qualifications to find talent
Employers are generally not very interested in the specifics of the qualifications that candidates brandish. Whether you got a B or A* in A level Geography or a 2:2 or a First in your English degree is valued because it can be used as a proxy for overall talent and competence. Most employers don’t worry if a candidate knows a little bit less about theories of population migration or the nineteenth century novel. But they will care a lot about candidates ability to learn, to think on their feet, to be resilient in the face of knock backs, and so on. Hopefully these are all things that people learn through education, but that doesn’t mean that they are well summarised by grades that are, at least in theory, meant to describe students’ levels of subject knowledge.
The difference between what grades are given for and what employers use them for has historically led to some odd practices. There have always been a tranche of employers who were more interested in A levels than degree grades, even when they were recruiting graduates. The rationale for this was that they felt that A level grades better predicted the ability of candidates to succeed in professional life, particularly when this was combined with the need to pass certain professional exams, such as in accountancy. This can be galling for students who have worked hard at university and out-performed their A level results.
There have also always been some employers who have taken the attitude that a graduate, is a graduate, and not been particularly interested in the grades that accompany the degree. There are two main reasons why employers might take this position. Probably the most important one is that employers are sceptical about what academic grades really tell them and are often inclined to use their own selection tools to figure out who is right for the job. If you use a minimum entry grade as a part of your selection process, you are essentially outsourcing hiring decisions to universities or schools. Many employers are not willing to do this and so use other tools like psychometric assessments, video interviews and assessment centres to find the candidates that they want.
The second reason why some employers are unhappy about using academic grades is concerns about inequity in the education system and a commitment to social mobility. There are a wide range of critiques which highlight the way that certain genders, ethnicities and social classes under-perform in the education system. Some employers are concerned about reproducing this inequality and also keen to find candidates who might be great employees even if they have been mediocre students.
Are attitudes changing?
At the ISE we conduct a survey with our employer members every year about their recruitment practices. Our members are typically large employers with a strong history of graduate recruitment. One of the things that we ask them about is what they use as entry requirements.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen the beginnings of a major shift in employer practice in relation to the use of grades in selection. In 2014, 76% of our members were requiring a 2:1 for all of their graduate recruits; by last year, that had dropped to 52%. Similarly, the practice of requiring minimum A level grades (or UCAS points) has also declined, from 40% of employers to 28%. Meanwhile, the proportion of employer setting no minimum requirements has grown from 7% to 19%.
What does this mean?
The trends that I’ve described in employers’ practice around grades have been accompanied by a lot of reflection and soul searching. Changing ideas about what constitutes a ‘good candidate’ is not an easy thing to do. Because of this, my prediction is that these trends will continue and that larger employers will continue to move away from a reliance on academic grades in their selection processes.
It is important not to over-react to this trend. It doesn’t mean that employers don’t value the kinds of knowledge, skills and personal attributes that are developed in education. During the last five years, employers have been increasing the number of graduates that they are recruiting year on year. They absolutely see value in a university education and believe that graduates can bring something unique to their business. What they are getting less interested in is viewing university grades as the first stage of a selection process.
For the higher education sector, this change should be enthusiastically embraced. If we move away from viewing the grading system as a crude tool of social sorting, we open up the possibility of having different debates about what it is actually for. Employers are keen to be part of these discussions and particularly to talk about how assessment and grading could incentivise the kinds of learning that they value. Thinking about grades in these terms could allow us to move past moral panics about grade inflation and start to think more pedagogically about the relationship between assessment and learning. Ultimately, this could help to make qualifications more valuable to individuals, employers and to society as a whole.