Doubling Down on Contextualisation in Post-pandemic Graduate Recruitment

How can we maintain progress tackling educational disparity following the COVID-19 pandemic? Banner image: Shutterstock/roibu

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Empowering Workers, Delivering a Jobs-rich Recovery took place on 13 July 2021 —watch the replay below!


As governments start to plan COVID-19 exit strategies, graduate recruiters will be considering their options for this year’s recruitment round. Contextualisation—when candidates’ achievements in their academic and socioeconomic contexts are examined—will need to remain centre stage of graduate recruiters’ strategies for the coming years if they are to maintain their progress on diversity.

COVID-19 was never going to be a “great leveler”, and we have seen the pandemic reinforce existing inequalities. Educational inequalities have been exacerbated as students from disadvantaged backgrounds have struggled to access online learning due to limited access to technology, overcrowded homes and added financial pressures.

Catch up efforts are underway, with the United Kingdom’s government committing funding for one-to-one tutoring and teacher training and development. There are concerns that these proposals do not go far enough however, with campaigners calling for more to be done to help disadvantaged students in particular.

In addition, the cancellation of GCSE, A-Level and some university exams raises concerns about qualifications for all students, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is these disparities that graduate recruiters will need to be mindful of when assessing candidates in the coming years.

Read the OECD Digital Education Outlook 2021 and find out more about novel pathways for teachers, policy makers and educational institutions to digitalise education while optimising equity and inclusivity

Read the OECD Digital Education Outlook 2021 and find out more about novel pathways for teachers, policy makers, and educational institutions to digitalise education while optimising equity and inclusivity

The trouble with school exam cancellations

In 2020, GCSE and A-Level exams were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United Kingdom, an algorithm was initially used to award grades, based on teacher assessment and a model built on historic school performance. It was feared that this approach would result in students missing out on university places, with a disproportionate impact on students from historically under-performing schools. These fears turned into reality on A-Level results day, causing distress and outrage across the country. As a result, the algorithm was abandoned and students were given the option to use their Centre Assessed Grades (i.e. the grades predicted for them by their schools) instead.

In the hope of avoiding a repeat of last year’s grade debacle, students in the United Kingdom will be awarded teacher-assessed grades this year for their GCSEs and A Levels. While this removes the concern that grossly inaccurate grades will be awarded by an algorithm, the potential exacerbation of educational inequalities remains worrying.

Evidence shows that a combination of teacher bias and low expectations can negatively impact the grade predictions of students from lower-income and ethnic minority backgrounds. In the case of A Levels, it has been estimated that a few thousand high-attaining (i.e. AAB+: achieving two assessments at A grade and a third at B grade or higher), low-income students have their grades underpredicted each year. This bias can also impact assessments themselves, with studies showing that some ethnic minority students perform better when assessed externally (i.e. by someone who does not know them) than when assessed by a teacher.

This year, it has been frequently commented that grades are expected to rise as a result of teacher-assessed grades replacing exams. This rise will not necessarily be distributed equally, however. Recently published research from UCL revealed that under last year’s system, students with parents who had attended university performed better with teacher assessed grades than students whose parents had not.

Read more on the Forum Network: Can Online Education "Retool" the Post-Pandemic Workforce? by Sanjay Sarma & William Bonvillian, Vice President for Open Learning; Senior Director, Special Projects, Office of Digital Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Read more on the Forum Network: "Can Online Education "Retool" the Post-Pandemic Workforce?" by Sanjay Sarma & William Bonvillian, Vice President for Open Learning; Senior Director, Special Projects, Office of Digital Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Context matters more than ever

While the full impact of COVID-19 on the academic achievements of lower-income and ethnic minority students is unknown, graduate recruiters must anticipate and prepare for it. Contextual recruitment will become even more crucial in the coming years if employers are to continue recruiting from a broad and diverse talent pool. 

Students from lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority groups have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and are most at risk of their grades being negatively impacted by bias and low expectations. While employers will likely see an increase in top A-Level grades overall, it will be important for them to look out for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who might have missed out due to the pandemic. For example, an employer might usually expect strong applicants to have achieved AAB at A Level, but might decide to accept different grades from candidates who have attended low-performing schools; been eligible for free school meals; spent time in local authority care; or experienced other forms of disadvantage.

Read the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis and recovery and find out more about the challenges brought about by the crisis and the policies to address them

Read the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis and recovery and find out more about the challenges brought about by the crisis and the policies to address them

Adverse-impact monitoring will also become a critical tool for graduate recruiters who are invested in avoiding pandemic-related disparities affecting their process. Monitoring the progress of different socioeconomic and ethnic groups through each application stage will help identify adverse impacts resulting from applying existing academic requirements to grades achieved during the pandemic. Done correctly—that is to say, with active monitoring in place throughout the application process—it will allow for reasonable adjustments to be made to account for COVID-19.

The students who have had their educational attainment negatively impacted by COVID-19 will be applying for insight days, internships and graduate schemes for the next few years. Graduate recruiters should give themselves a head start in accounting for the resulting educational disparities if they want to ensure this global pandemic does not widen the gaps they are working hard to close.

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Income Inequality Digital Inclusion Future of Work Future of Education & Skills

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Naomi Kellman

Senior Manager for Schools and Universities, Rare Recruitment

Naomi joined Rare in 2011 and founded Target Oxbridge, a programme that has helped over 280 black African and Caribbean students secure Oxbridge offers, and currently supports 160 students a year. Naomi spent 2012 – 2015 working on education policy at the Department for Education and the Treasury, and also served three years as a secondary school governor. Naomi has co-founded both the BAME Fast Stream Network and the Oxford Black Alumni Network, and has made appearances on Sky News, BBC News, BBC Radio and Channel 5 News to discuss Oxbridge access and graduate recruitment. She is currently Rare’s Senior Manager for Schools and Universities, a Trustee for Ebony Horse Club, and a member of the External Advisory Panel for the History Faculty at the University of Oxford.