Justine Greening argues that universities need to be proactive about social mobility
The war for talent is making employers rethink not only what they mean by ‘talent’, but also where they look for it. For a long time, finding talent was pretty straightforward. It generally meant getting graduates from the most selective, high-tariff universities. Year after year, employers would go back to the same institutions to find intakes for their graduate schemes. Yet things are changing fast. Even in the time since I launched the Social Mobility Pledge back in 2018, I’ve seen a marked change in attitudes towards—and increasingly business strategy on—the talent search.
Firstly, the ESG (environmental, social and governance) agenda is making businesses think about diversity like never before, including, now, diversity of backgrounds. It’s long overdue, hugely welcome and absolutely necessary.
I recently launched in Westminster the Equality of Opportunity Coalition, which brought together a growing group of employers committed to tracking socioeconomic diversity alongside other diversity metrics, such as gender and ethnicity. At that event were household names like BP, the BBC and the Co-op Group, and top law firms like Shoosmiths. It also involved public sector organisations, including NHS trusts and councils.
For them, the driver isn’t just doing the right thing in a country that has prioritised levelling up. It’s about getting to the talent they’ve previously missed and improving their cultures and decision-making. One senior exec also told me that work on social mobility had uniquely galvanised their employees, which matters when retention of skills as well as recruitment becomes a challenge.
Secondly, employers know that a new generation of graduates has quite different attitudes towards work and careers than in the past. These graduates want to be in organisations that share their outlook and values on social impact.
I’m working hard through my own campaigning on levelling up to connect the several hundred employers in the Social Mobility Pledge—and in particular the central core of them, called the Purpose Coalition—with the universities that are also part of our levelling-up push. We’re helping these employers match their opportunities and growing work on employability with those universities successfully developing that wider talent pool employers are looking for.
At a fantastic event at Liverpool John Moores University last month, we brought together students, staff, Liverpool employers and local government on a project to do just that. We’ve held similar events in places like Bradford and Lincoln, and we’ll be doing the same across more regions over the coming months.
Force for good
It was striking that the impressive students at LJMU told our employers that they wanted a career with a purpose. They care deeply about the values of the employers they might work with and their broader positive impact, as well as the development opportunities they offer. For them, that beats the employer offering the highest salary. They are willing to work hard and knuckle down, but in a role with an employer that has worked out how to be a force for good in a wider community.
From an employer perspective, who wouldn’t want this new generation with a sense of values and responsibility that trumps any traditional process controls businesses have? And because, as all the evidence shows, diversity drives financial returns—which is why investors care about it—who wouldn’t want to recruit graduates who both understand that diversity and represent it themselves? Employers I work with know the leaders of the future will ever more come from these grounded role models with values. They are determined to find them.
For universities, this shift will be profound. Diversity means that employers will increasingly want to partner with universities that can show that they not only understand this new world, but have it running through their entire student experience and development. Through my work, we’ll be helping more and more employers to practically support employability development for students. But they’ll be doing it in universities where they have confidence that their values on levelling up are shared.
Demonstrating that shared set of values starts with core widening-participation work, but our employers are looking beyond that to what else universities are doing on levelling up. Are they a part of that bigger push for levelling up in communities? Are they, as employers themselves, an engine of social mobility by being open and diverse? Are they measuring that?
Opening up academia
I’m proud that a whole cohort of our Levelling Up Universities Coalition was at the recent Westminster event, committing, as employers, to track the socioeconomic diversity of their staff. We know that academia as a profession needs to open up much more widely and we also know that doing so is a key ingredient to improve the attainment rates of some student groups, particularly from ethnic minorities. Employers in the Purpose Coalition want to work with universities that are taking action and that are also out making a positive case for levelling up, being advocates alongside them, and working collectively.
It’s a powerful ecosystem: sharp-elbowed employers keen to reinvent how they look at talent, joining up with universities led by inspirational vice-chancellors, who are also ahead of the curve. The world has moved on—in the right direction—to one that prioritises action on equality of opportunity.
Like many, I was disappointed to see higher education’s long-standing and crucial role on social mobility largely absent from the government’s recent Levelling-Up white paper. There’s always a policy landscape to operate in. Sometimes it’s positive and moving in the right direction to level up, sometimes it’s not—as I might argue is the case now. But the sector doesn’t need to wait for the right government approach to make a difference. It has a choice. Let’s choose to drive the social change our country needs anyway. And the way to do that is by coming together in a much broader movement on social mobility.
Justine Greening is a former Conservative MP for Putney and served as secretary of state for education between 2016 and 2018