School grades don’t matter much?

  • Opinion
  • Saturday, 16 Jan 2016

Accounting firms PwC and EY start a trend in recruitment to help business and society

WE all know that good grades in school won’t necessarily land you that first job. They do however go a long way towards convincing a potential employer that you’re likely to perform well if hired. That’s why you’re routinely asked to produce certificates and transcripts during the application process. How else can the employer get a quick reading on the discipline, intelligence, diligence and knowledge of a school-leaver or a fresh graduate?

But what if an employer decides that your grades shouldn’t matter as much? How will that change things?

For the answer to that, we ought to be watching the Big Four accounting firms in Britain.

Starting in June last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) stopped using the UCAS tariff as an entry criterion for most of its undergraduate and graduate recruitment schemes. Developed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the tariff is the British system for allocating points to those seeking undergraduate placements.

The system applies to a long list of entry qualifications — for example, A levels, City & Guilds diplomas, and music examinations — and the points for each qualification are worked out based on the levels of achievement.

Before this, a person usually must have a minimum number of UCAS points before PwC would consider his job application, even if he’s a graduate. This is apparently a common practice in Britain. With the policy change, the accounting firm can now overlook mediocre A-level results if the candidate has gone on to soar in his degree programme.

PwC says the reduced emphasis on UCAS points is because it’s important to be a progressive and socially inclusive employer, and because it wants to reach the broadest range of talented students.

“There’s strong correlation that exists in Britain between social class and school academic performance. This data suggests that by placing too much emphasis on UCAS scores, employers could miss out on key talent from disadvantaged backgrounds, because they may perform less well at school. That’s why, from an academic perspective, we’re focusing on your degree,” it explains on its website.

And then in August, Ernst & Young (EY) announced that it would remove academic qualifications from the entry criteria for its 2016 graduate, undergraduate and school-leaver programmes. Instead of insisting on certain standards for UCAS points and degree classification, the firm relies on “a new and enhanced suite of online “strengths” assessments and numerical tests to assess the potential of applicants”.

In other words, EY recruits by evaluating the candidates’ strengths and promise, not just their past performance.

This decision came after talent management firm Capp had studied EY’s student selection process over 18 months. The analysis found that EY’s strengths-based approach in recruitment, introduced in 2008, is a robust and reliable indicator of a candidate’s potential to succeed in his role in EY.

“At EY, we are modernising the workplace, challenging traditional thinking and ways of doing things. Transforming our recruitment process will open up opportunities for talented individuals regardless of their background and provide greater access to the profession,” says Maggie Stilwell, the managing partner for talent.

“Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door.”

“Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment. It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.”

It’s interesting that Stillwell describes an overriding dependence on academic qualifications as a blunt approach. Stephen Isherwood, the chief executive of Britain’s Association of Graduate Recruiters, has a similar view. The PwC press release on the firm’s move to drop the UCAS points entry criteria, quotes Isherwood: “Using a candidate’s UCAS points to assess his potential is a blunt tool and a barrier to social mobility. This is an innovative step by one of the most significant graduate recruiters in Britain. Other graduate employers should follow its lead.”

PwC definitely sees itself as a trendsetter, saying its new recruitment assessment process could drive radical change across its industry. However, these radical changes haven’t happened yet. So far, Deloitte and KPMG, the other two firms in the Big Four, are still sticking to their minimum academic requirements in Britain.

It’s too soon to conclude that the recruitment changes by PwC and EY are a failed experiment.

The war for talent is intense among accounting firms. Businesses can’t stay at the top without thinking out of the box, taking bold steps, and being caring. It should be no different when it comes to how they hire people.

Executive editor Errol Oh joined an accounting firm right out of school. That doesn’t happen in Malaysia anymore.

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