What can the corporate world learn from the higher education sector to drive the social mobility agenda?

corporate world learn from the higher education sector

Rebecca Brandwood, Consultant in our Education and Healthcare Practices, discusses social mobility in higher education with Prof David Green, Vice Chancellor of the University of Worcester, and how the successes of the university sector could apply to the corporate world 

Social mobility in the UK is recognised as a critical issue needing recognition and action from public and private sector organisations. Just last year, the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report revealed social mobility has been stagnant for the last four years, stating, “inequality is now entrenched in Britain from birth to work”. From early years education and government support through higher education and into corporate careers, individuals from all backgrounds must be given the opportunity to reach their full potential. 

I chose to speak to Prof Green because the University of Worcester has evolved into one of the UK’s most inclusive Universities – confirmed most recently when it was won the first ever ‘University OSCAR’ for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at the November 2020 Times Higher Education University Awards. Worcester is rated the top UK University for gender equity and has also been number one for fair gender pay continuously since these statistics were first published. Shortlisted twice in a row for Social Mobility University of the Year and University of the Year, Worcester has co-created the Hive, the UK’s first University and Public Library which has become the country’s second most visited public library, as well as the UK’s first sports hall designed for wheelchair athletes.

I asked Prof Green what social mobility meant to him and what role universities play in realising it and he stated, “the most important thing to remember is each individual is significant, no matter their background”. He continued by explaining “the role of the university is to ensure students make the most of their potential – as human beings and as students”. An individual will go to university with aims and a great deal of ambition, whether to meet a career goal or a personal development aspiration, and this should be facilitated by the people they interact with, the teaching they receive and the resources they have available to them. 

Our conversation turned to the journey for someone into higher education and then on to the workplace. Prof Green told me, “for some it is straight forward, but for anyone who falls off the conveyor belt, it becomes much more difficult”. To ease this transition and smooth the pathway, University of Worcester invests heavily in creating partnerships with schools and further education colleges. The university’s education visits speak to and engage with young students and their parents helping them understand what higher education opportunities are available to them. 

The corporate world can also play a role in this developmental period by creating similar links with schools, colleges and universities. Prof Green suggested firms should consider reaching out to education providers to schedule talks and workshops with the students to discuss what they do, what jobs are available and how to secure a role in their sector. This can also be a key activity with universities as a way of introducing potential entry-level candidates to the opportunities available within the company. 

In addition to this, companies should go beyond advice-giving by offering industry experience to young people entering the workforce. This can take the form of a mentorship, an insight day, a work placement or a research project. Odgers Berndtson, for example, runs its ‘CEOx1Day’ initiative which gives the opportunity to undergraduate students to spend a day, one on one, shadowing CEOs from some of the most successful and best-known companies and organisations in the world. Opportunities which enable young people to be part of a company and build a relationship with working professionals are so important to those who have not had previous exposure to a corporate environment. A collaborative approach where learning providers, businesses and communities work together can bring huge benefits to the places they serve, such as raised aspirations in schools, local business productivity and graduate start-ups. 

Building on this point, Prof Green wanted to draw attention to the need to consider the practicalities of offering opportunities to young people. For programmes such as work placements and internships, Prof Green said companies need to consider questions around “where are they going to live? Who is going to pay for their expenses? What happens to the student at weekends?”, and now in the current pandemic state, “what equipment will the student need to access the work? Do they have an appropriate working environment?”. These challenges of inclusivity need to be addressed in order to ensure the opportunity is not just advertised as available for all but can genuinely support any selected candidate. 

Over the past year, the shift to remote working has increased access to opportunities as certain barriers to entry, such as geographical location, have been removed. Flexible and remote employment and education provision going forward could mean not having to move location and therefore be an important contributor to tackling regional inequality, as an example. Recruitment since the pandemic outbreak has become more expansive with organisations attracting and hiring new candidates successfully who they previously would not have been able to do. 

Post-Covid, it is important organisations learn from the new ways of working to better support social mobility. Prof Green did however highlight the new obstacles virtual learning and working has highlighted such as digital poverty, difficulties working from home and loneliness. The impact of Covid-19 meant universities had to ensure remote well-being and mental health support was available for their students and we have partnered with many organisations who have invested to provide this support virtually for their employees. 

In order to attract new candidates, however, the organisation must have an inclusive recruitment strategy in place. Employers can learn from the widening participation approach universities take to their student recruitment. We at Odgers Berndtson work with the organisations we support to ensure the recruitment process reaches a diverse pool of candidates and engages with them on an equal level. For example, we consider the language used in job descriptions, adapt and adjust the experience required for the specific role and needs of the organisation, and we approach potential candidates from outside of the sector who otherwise may not be considered for the job. 

A further suggestion from Prof Green for the corporate world was to start an ambassador's programme. Worcester asks recent graduates to take part in events with prospective students, such as UCAS fairs, to talk about their higher education experiences. Corporate companies should consider how they can run similar schemes, asking their younger members of staff to speak about their journeys into their workplace, the skills they have acquired and opportunities available. Prof Green suggested organisations ask colleagues who took a different route into the world of work, perhaps individuals who did not attend university or who overcame adversity, to take part and share their experiences. We have worked with employers who already have strong partnerships in place and are benefitting from attracting diverse talent thus supporting their social mobility agenda. 

Aside from widening participation initiatives, we also discussed the importance of culture. An organisation’s culture is built and maintained through a number of different initiatives, communications, expectations and behaviours. For Prof Green, a key part of this is removing internal barriers. One of the ways he enabled his mission to create an inclusive university was through the eradication of society initiation ceremonies. He worked with the student’s union “to remove this exclusionary aspect of student life, using strong actions and words to ensure there were to be no misdemeanours”. 

Organisations which invest in building a strong set of values by removing internal barriers as well as external barriers will benefit greatly and attract and retain their employees. Company values are very important to millennials when it comes to choosing where they want to work. There is also evidence to show organisations with a strong sense of purpose report significantly higher financial success, employee satisfaction and effective talent retention. 

Social mobility is a constant challenge, but it can be achieved through positive change; to quote Prof Green, “instead of trying to divide, we should always aim to connect”. We need to share in his mindset of judging others on their achievements, true potential and ambition. To accelerate and see real difference to social mobility in the UK, we all need to embrace and take part in the change. 

For more information please contact Rebecca Brandwood.


Michael Fanning at 23/12/2020 13:13 said:

Thank you for such a positive and motivating conversation. I like the element about the pros and cons of virtual learning and how this can translate to the world of employment. I can see the opportunity for shared learning about how students develop resilience using new ways of learning and how employers can help in developing the emotional intelligence needed in the work environment.

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