PriceWaterhouseCoopers recently announced that it was going to remove the UCAS tariff as a requirement for its graduate scheme. For those of us working to improve social mobility, this comes as a major step forward - and follows the law firm Clifford Chance's introduction of a 'CV blind' approach last year when interviewers were not told which university and schools applicants had attended.
The use of the UCAS tariff as a recruitment and selection tool has long been criticised for entrenching privilege and holding back people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The tariff was developed to help universities and colleges with their admissions procedures, by allocating a set number of points to various post-16 qualifications (so for example, the maximum A* at A-level gets 280 points while a distinction in certain BTEC diploma subjects receives 80 points).
UCAS itself firmly states that it does not endorse using the tariff for any other purpose. Quite right too.
Employers using the tariff, setting a minimum UCAS tariff score before any application is considered, end up judging people in their twenties and older on decisions and achievements made in their teens. This inevitably prejudices the process in favour of more privileged students whose schools have experience in turning out high-quality students, at the expense of students who have lacked the same support and advice, and who may have chosen unsuitable qualifications or struggled to make it into university.
Further the UCAS tariff takes no account of development within higher education - and frankly diminishes the value of the degree - by focusing on exams taken years ago, rather than on the degree itself.
In short, recruiters using the UCAS tariff end up missing out on talent and potential - to the detriment of their business. Research from HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) has shown that, in general, state school students who enter university with the same grades as their privately educated counterparts perform better in their studies. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has even recommended that universities should make lower offers to students from poorly performing state schools to recognise the potential that might not be fully apparent from a cursory analysis of their A-level results.
So, welcome moves then from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Clifford Chance, but still a huge way to travel. As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has stated, universities should use 'contextual data' in their admissions process i.e taking into account a student's social background alongside their exam results. We also need to ensure that students study subjects that will help them to fulfil their potential in the first place - as the Russell Group rightly note - and many young people simply do not have access to the support and advice that enables them to make informed decisions at the age of 14 and 16. So employers and universities need to engage even earlier than that, giving all young people knowledge, support and access to networks so that they too can make confident and informed decisions.
Because it's not just an ethical question of helping everyone to fulfil their potential and to make the most of their life chances; it's about business success too. In the words of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, "the strong correlation that exists in the UK between social class and school academic performance suggests that by placing too much emphasis on UCAS scores, employers will miss out on key talent from disadvantaged backgrounds, who can perform less well at school."
This is what charities and other campaigners for social mobility have been saying for years, so it's great to hear top employers finally making the same case. After all, they can show the improvements hiring people for their talents not backgrounds makes to the bottom line - and that's something any business can understand.