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Time to ditch the degree? Why employers are no longer asking for a 2:1

Many recruiters are lowering their qualification criteria. Is attracting a wider range of academic abilities a smart move or desperate one?
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Graduating with a good degree was once considered key to securing a decent job after university. But recruiters are increasingly less concerned with the classification on degree certificates. 

According to research from the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), the proportion of companies requiring at least a 2:1 qualification from graduates fell below 50% for the first time last year. Meanwhile, the number of firms that don’t have a minimum requirement is slowly rising.

Of the recruiters ranked in the 2022-23 edition of The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers, 31 require applicants to have achieved at least a 2:1 degree, while 43 either have no minimum grade or don’t specify one.

Santander is the latest major recruiter to join the trend, announcing at the start of this year that it would no longer require university graduates to hold a 2:1 degree or higher. The bank says this will help it to expand its talent pool and open up opportunities to people with a “wide range of backgrounds, skills and experiences”.

Why are companies removing 2:1 requirements?

Several factors have influenced this change. As companies find it increasingly difficult to attract talent within a competitive labour market, accepting applications from a wider group of graduate candidates is seen as a way to help fill vacancies.

Some 74,895 students graduated with lower second-class honours, third-class honours or a pass in 2021, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which represents 17.5% of that year’s UK graduates. 

Stephen Isherwood is joint CEO of the ISE and the former head of graduate recruitment at EY. “The tight labour market means employers generally have a shortage of employees and skills, so they’re more likely to look to build a longer talent pipeline,” he says.

This has been reflected in graduate pay, which was up 7% on average last year, as competition for talent increased across all areas of the jobs market.

There is also pressure on companies to diversify their workforce. Santander – which currently ranks 40th on the Social Mobility Foundation Employer Index – has pledged to increase the proportion of employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in senior roles from 28% to 35% by 2030.

Anouska Ramsay, Santander UK’s HR director, claims that “by having access to a wider talent pool we can reinforce our commitment to finding the best candidates from a range of backgrounds, skills and experiences”.

Similarly, PwC said that removing its 2:1 requirement would allow the professional services firm to “make real progress in driving social mobility” among its recruits, after making the change last year.

Data from the Office for Students shows that 74.2% of students from the most deprived groups achieved a first or upper-second degree in 2019/20. In comparison, 89.4% of students from the least deprived areas of the country were awarded one of the top two degree classifications. By removing the need for a 2:1, employers hope they can make their graduate programmes more accessible to all, no matter their social or economic circumstances.

Grant Thornton was the first large professional services firm to remove any strict academic requirement from its graduate job listings, in 2013. Its people and culture director, Richard Waite, says that the change has allowed the business “to tap into a broader talent pool” and “unlock potential in candidates” that previously would have been screened out at the first stage of hiring. 

“The removal of academic barriers to entry has allowed us to have a much wider reach and a more diverse intake each year,” he adds. 

The pandemic has influenced this change too. Ramsay raises the point that students have faced a “vast range of difficulties” since the Covid-19 pandemic and acknowledges the “physical or mental health concerns” that may have impacted their studies

Santander hopes that by removing its degree requirements, students whose final grades were affected by pandemic-related disruptions will still be able to apply for its 68 graduate positions.

Are employers downgrading?

Kubrick is one of the decreasing number of companies listed in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers that still stipulates a 2:1 minimum. Co-founder and chief commercial officer Simon Walker states that this is because its placement programme “relies on hires that are high quality”. But he adds that the business is reviewing its degree requirements “to better enable people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to work with us, while maintaining high levels of competencies in our workforce”.

Some have claimed that overlooking academic attainment amounts to little more than a dumbing down of recruitment, with The Telegraph columnist Matthew Lynn joking that you will soon “be able to apply to Goldman Sachs with some nice potato painting”.

But any fears that these changes will disincentivise students from aiming for top marks can swiftly be put to rest, Isherwood says. “An individual’s motivation to do well tends to override any messages from the job market,” he adds. “Even though employers aren’t using grades as a cut-off point, if you have good academic credentials and a well-rounded CV, you will be putting yourself in the best light in a competitive market.”

Isherwood compares it to the trend of employers no longer as concerned with Ucas points as they were. He says: “These sorts of requirements used to be a shorthand way of reducing the number of applications when businesses didn’t have any other tools at their disposal.” Now, companies are more likely to use online aptitude tests or practical tasks, which many employers consider a much better predictor of suitability for a role.

Grant Thornton is one of the employers that has found that top marks don’t always translate into success in the workplace. Waite says: “With academic profile no longer a criterion for selection, we are being more particular during the process with a greater focus on performance against the strengths and competencies and are therefore hiring a more rounded cohort of candidates who can thrive in the role.”

Similarly, Goldman Sachs, which has never stipulated minimum grades for its graduate positions, sees formal requirements as little more than a barrier to accessing the best talent. Its head of recruiting for EMEA, Janine Glasenberg, says: “As we recruit students from all over the world, we pride ourselves on not having a formulaic approach. We recognise that a range of factors may influence one’s educational outcome.”

Instead, the investment bank takes into account extracurricular activities, hobbies, languages spoken, transferable skills and any form of work experience when reviewing a candidate’s application. Last year, 236,000 people applied for its 3,000 graduate places.

It may be that the move away from strict 2:1 requirements could provide positive results for both students and employers.