Students applying for internships asked whether their parents went to university, report finds

Students applying for summer internships are being asked whether their parents went to university, a report has found, amid fears that middle-class applicants will be “penalised” by leading graduate employers.

Almost half (45 per cent) of the country’s largest graduate recruiters, including top banking, accountancy, law, retail and engineering firms, now ask university students about their socio-economic status. 

This is a three-fold increase from 2012, when just 13 per cent of graduate recruiters asked such questions, according to a report published today by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE).

The most popular metric used by employers to track socio-economic status was whether the student was the first in their family to go to university, closely followed by whether they went to a state school.

Applicants were also asked whether they had qualified for free school meals, and what their parents’ jobs are. It comes amid increasing pressure on the UK’s biggest employers to boost diversity in their workforce.

Critics have warned that well-educated students applying for internships and jobs could end up being “penalised” because of their background.

Students were asked whether they were the first in their family to go to university

Students were asked whether they were the first in their family to go to university

Chris McGovern, a former Government adviser and chair of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “We cannot appoint second rate candidates on the basis that they have come from a deprived background.  

“What we actually need to do is raise standards rather than foisting politically correct ideas on to employers.”

He said that while some employers might pay „lip service“ the notion of increasing diversity by asking applicants to fill out forms about their backgrounds and then “throwing it in the bin”, others may use it to “penalise” and “discriminate” against middle class students.

Stephen Isherwood, the CEO of the ISE, said that increasing the diversity of the employees is one of the biggest concerns among his members when they are recruiting. 

In the 1970s there was no conversation at all about diversity. But there have been changes in society and policyStephen Isherwood, the CEO of the ISE

“You do have employers now using contextualised data. They don’t do positive dissociation, but what they do is use that data to make a level playing field,” he said.

“It is not about rejecting an Eton-educated candidate to let someone else through. It is about letting both through [and recognising that] someone from a lower socio-economic background may not have had the same advantages.”

He said that the reason employers are focused on diversity is so that they can find the best talent, and overcome a “pale, male and stale” image by “getting it right at graduate entry level”.

Mr Isherwood said that the desire by major firms to increase the diversity of their workforce is “partly politically driven”, adding that widening participation in higher education has also been a “driving force”.  

“If you look at the political discourse of course it has absolutely had an impact,” he said. “In the 1970s there was no conversation at all about diversity. But there have been changes in society and policy.“

Employers now have a more sophisticated understanding about barriers people face to success.”   Formerly known as the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the ISE represents more than 500 of the country’s leading graduate employers.

Last month The Daily Telegraph revealed that ministers have published a series of socio-economic questions for staff about their backgrounds intended for use by major companies and the Civil Service.

Tens of thousands of civil servants will be asked the questions in the Civil Service’s annual “people survey” in October this year.

The Government insisted there were no plans to make the socio-economic checks a legal duty on firms, but similar initiatives on gender pay have become law at a later date.

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