Supporting non-traditional students into employment

Graduations at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast

Reflecting on recent blog posts on this website it is clear that one of the fundamental roles of business schools is to ensure our graduates transition successfully into meaningful (and hopefully lucrative) work. However, the CBI's Carolyn Fairbairn explains that UK employers still have difficulty finding the right talent and skills necessary to take their businesses to the next level. As educators we have a clear role to play in ensuring that non-traditional students, including those from diverse backgrounds, are equipped with work-ready skills.

The Chartered ABS diversity committee is of course keen to play a role guiding that process for our members, but we acknowledge that it is easy to fall into the trap of embracing and championing dominant or fashionable categories of inequality that are supported by well-established bodies such as Athena SWAN. While all forms of inequality are important, my view is that we need to focus on disadvantage in a more complex way.  One way of thinking about this complexity is to consider the barriers facing our most disadvantaged students. Business schools employ a variety of widening participation initiatives to encourage non-traditional and often ‘disadvantaged’ individuals into higher education so it follows that we have a responsibility to ensure that as graduates they are equipped to transition into the labour market.

Through my own research that explores the experiences of female, mature business graduates it is clear that age, gender, class and ethnicity barriers work together to form mutually constituted forms of disadvantage in recruitment to many graduate jobs. My findings show that large organisations design graduate training schemes to suit students with no commitments and little or no work experience. With the exception of Belgium, UK graduates are the youngest in Europe. Consequently age norms and norms around the expected life stage of candidates are embedded into recruitment practices. Commonly used ‘killer questions’, named so because the wrong answer can ‘kill’ an application, often include questions around location, mobility and flexibility – issues that immediately rule out graduates with caring responsibilities. In addition, recruitment intermediaries, who may be less concerned with inclusivity and diversity agendas than the organisations that they serve, often filter out non-traditional candidates whom they feel do not fit the expected graduate profile.

This is a lose-lose situation for all concerned. Employers could be missing out on a valuable and experienced pool of talent whilst our offer of career capital in the form of formal qualifications to non-traditional candidates has only limited value. These graduates may be forced to seek more flexible and accessible employment opportunities in smaller or public sector organisations (with lower pay) or routes into self-employment (that can be precarious and by definition lack employment protection).

There are two clear ways that business schools can support these students as they transition into work.

  • We can push our inclusivity and diversity or widening participation agendas through the increasingly strong ties our schools have with business leaders. It is at this strategic level that recruitment behaviours can be challenged. If leaders are unaware that they are missing out on potential supply of talent they are unlikely to change embedded HR recruitment procedures.
  • We need to understand that disadvantage does not disappear after Welcome Week and demonstrate this by providing initiatives to support students whilst they study and beyond. Here at Salford Business School we have just started a programme linking some of our aspiring female students, several who have children, with mentors in industry who are willing to share employment experiences and provide ‘real world’ advice.

Business schools are well placed to provide life-changing opportunities to individuals who have faced and continue to face adversity. Supporting our most disadvantaged students into good work should be one of our main priorities.


By Dr Francine Morris, Lecturer in People Management & Programme Leader, Salford Business School