UK consultancies reduce Oxbridge intake amid 'talent shortage'

05 March 2019 7 min. read
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The portion of new recruits arriving in the consulting industry from the UK’s elite universities has fallen drastically in the last year. According to a new study from the UK consulting industry’s representative body, the proportion of the sector’s intake consisting of Oxbridge graduates has seen a nine-point fall since 2011, and the Russell Group has seen a 19-point drop over the same period.

The higher education sector of the UK is currently pumping out graduates at record rates, and yet somehow UK businesses believe themselves to be facing a so-called ‘talent shortage’. It seems more accurate to suggest that talent is wasted, rather than absent from Britain, however, as despite the UK workforce being supplemented by a broadly high-skilled generation of labour, studies conducted into the graduate talent pool have routinely found that a large portion of those from outside the elite institutions of Oxbridge and the Russell Group are being excluded from graduate rolls. 

According to the latest available data from the Office for National Statistics, released in the final quarter of 2018, only 54% of graduates in the same age group had a graduate job. The value of a university education was further called into question late last year when another international study found that almost one in three graduates in the UK were overqualified for their jobs. In England, 28% of graduates work jobs which do not require a degree, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

With British businesses apparently facing an impending talent crisis, the widening of employment opportunities beyond a few prestigious universities is paramount. To an extent, companies are aware of this, however, what they say and what they do remain largely divorced on the matter. Researchers from the Social Mobility Foundation found that while 96% of firms stated theoretically they would accept graduates from any university, 61% of their successful applicants attended one of the country’s 24 most selective institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Management consultancy career accessibility

The top 11 UK universities meanwhile have the lowest intake of state school students in the country, and the fact that employers visited them more than all the other UK universities combined mean those from poorer backgrounds are placed at a firm disadvantage when it comes to networking with top employers. This neglect for mobility targets was further compounded by the fact that, of the companies surveyed, respondents said they visited the elite Oxbridge institutions more than all 118 other higher education institutions combined.

In order to broaden the base from which talent is sourced in the UK economy, the consulting industry has taken wide-ranging steps in order to lead by example in the last decade. According to a new study from the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), there has been a significant decrease in the percentage of consultants recruited from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities since 2011. The study found that only 4% of young consultants were educated at Oxbridge whilst 54% came from Russell Group universities, as leading firms sought to diversify their talent pool and compete with tech giants for the best-skilled young people.

Luke Cummings, Senior Consultant at Savanta, said, “The story this research tells is of an industry broadening its horizons, in order to attract and retain some of the best global talent. Routes into consulting are widening and diversifying, illustrated by a significant decline in Russell Group and Oxbridge graduates. The study reveals an industry in good health, with robust growth predictions for the future. However, Brexit is a concern for management consultants, with the impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit estimated to have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the wider UK economy.”

Competing for talent

The MCA member survey was conducted in January 2019 by the independent research company Savanta on behalf of the representative body for the consulting industry in the UK, taking input from 328 management consultants from all levels, and firms of all sizes. It showed that over the past 8 years the number of young consultants attending Russell Group universities has dropped by a fifth and the number attending Oxbridge has dropped by 9 percentage points. As a result, the researchers concluded that the industry has become more accessible to graduates from all backgrounds than ever before.

This is not to say that the number of consultants hailing from elite universities has fallen since 2011, but rather that the number of graduates recruited from beyond that realm is being ramped up. According to the survey, the skills most in demand from firms for new recruits are data science, technological expertise and analytical and digital skills which are all vital to meet growing client demand for digital and technology focused advisory.

This demand, weighted against an ageing population in which a higher number of workers are approaching retirement than entering the workforce, means consultancies have recognised they have no choice but to chase talent from beyond the usual places, and that they would be better off doing so sooner rather than later, to get ahead of the fierce competition to follow. To that end, consultancies are also putting in place a number of benefits and conditions which they feel will better position them to compete for young talent.

Top 3 benefits

While three quarters of respondents to the MCA’s poll believed the consulting industry is better than most sectors at attracting high quality talent, however, they may still need to go further to secure that position. Young consultants said firms needed to offer more sociable hours of work and better work life balance in future, as well as continued professional development. Most importantly, and least palatably for businesses used to suppressing wages to improve their bottom line, a majority of 59% said competitive salaries were key to attract the best talent.

Elsewhere, though, the study found that respondents felt the biggest internal challenges for firms are increased requirements for flexible working and competing with non-consulting industries. As a result, the majority of consultancies will likely have to make peace with the idea of improving pay for their new recruits, if they expect to secure the best talent for their firms.

Commenting on the findings, Tamzen Isacsson, Chief Executive of the Management Consultancies Association, said, “Consultants are highly valued by clients across the UK for bringing in the smartest and best digital talent and helping to transform businesses, deliver tangible results and get better outcomes for firms. Developing top talent is not the privilege of one educational institution and this survey shows entrance to leading management consultancy firms is becoming more accessible than ever.”