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Guarding against ‘netpotism’: why COVID is leading to closed recruitment networks and what we can do about it

  • 14 April 2021
  • By Clare Adams

This blog was kindly contributed by Clare Adams, Head of University Success, UK at Handshake. You can find Clare and Handshake on Twitter @ClareLAdams @joinHandshakeuk.

As the graduate recruitment sector rapidly shifted online in 2020, many of us hoped this would act as an engine for social mobility – leading to more equality of access for students and helping employers to connect with a broader talent pool. At Handshake we saw universities respond to the COVID pandemic at speed, embracing virtual careers fairs, offering advice and guidance on online interviews and helping their student body adapt to change.

But our newest research exposes a significant issue, which suggests that digital recruitment isn’t levelling the playing field in the way we had hoped. In fact, employers have been reliant on existing digital networks or connections to find staff – with 63% saying they leaned more on online professional networks such as LinkedIn and more than half (57%) saying they used word of mouth to find staff.

And, on the flip side, we also found that a quarter of students simply don’t have the right technology at home to access virtual recruitment processes, with many citing issues like internet reliability or even a lack of private space from which to conduct interviews.

This suggests that those students from more affluent backgrounds, with personal connections into professional careers are still likely to be gaining an advantage over other candidates. We call this issue ‘netpotism’ and believe that it has the potential to act as another obstacle to social mobility. And, by exposing the issue in our new report we hope that employers, students and education providers can seize the opportunity to combat it.

Beyond raising the profile of the issue, to tackle nepotism, we must ensure that young people have the technology required to access career opportunities, addressing issues like slow broadband – or device and connectivity provision for disadvantaged students.

Almost all recent graduates (91%) who had experienced a virtual interview in the past year reported some kind of issue with the process – from someone in their household walking in during the discussion to accidentally sharing something onscreen they didn’t mean to. The sooner the view of young people as a monolith of ‘digital natives’ who are able to roll with the changes to these processes changes, the sooner more support can be given.

When uninterrupted access is ensured, students also need to feel comfortable with the content they are delivering – and this type of training and advice is where university careers services can support those entering the jobs market. More than a quarter (28%) of students and recent graduates say they would benefit from more training on how to conduct job interviews and a similar proportion (27%) say they could do with training on the applications process too. We must also call for employers and students alike to be more proactive, in establishing contact and forming relationships with each other.

As with many sea changes brought about by the pandemic, this situation isn’t one that’s likely to revert back to the status quo as we navigate our way out. Two-thirds (66%) of employers say they will be conducting more of the recruitment process online going forwards, meaning that alongside the benefits they must have experienced to want to keep some of these changes in place, there’s a clear responsibility to tackle the negatives too.

But ultimately, we believe ensuring equality of access isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes good business sense too – fostering a culture of innovation, more rounded thinking and ultimately, better productivity.

Drawing on new data and on our experiences of working with universities and employers around the world, our report offers practical routes to ensuring a more diverse and inclusive recruitment pipeline, and to helping graduates successfully navigate a changing recruitment landscape. Download it here and let us know what you think.

In just under two weeks in partnership with London South Bank University, HEPI will be hosting a free-to-attend webinar on universities’ contribution to social mobility. We’ll be hearing from a superb selection of speakers including the CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation, Sarah Atkinson, and Phil Baty, Editor of the the World University Rankings among others.

Spaces are limited so make sure you sign up here.

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