A small number of universities are slowing the rise of diversity in the workplace and controlling access to top jobs, according to Euan Blair, chief executive of apprenticeship company Multiverse.
Blair, the son of former prime minister Tony Blair, told an Evening Standard event this week that degrees were being used as a “filtering mechanism” at the expense of hiring the best people.
“When you really boil it down, essentially we’ve allowed the top jobs in the labour market, and who takes those top jobs, to be determined by a small group of academic institutions.
“That’s hugely problematic for society – it has helped embed inequality into the labour market,” he said.
Blair cited how only 4% of people who had claimed free school meals went on to study at a Russell Group university. This resulted in a lack of social mobility in leading roles in sectors such as professional services.
“I think the thing that is increasingly important to big companies and small companies is accessing diverse talent and getting the skills they need,” Blair said.
He said more than half of the apprentices that Multiverse had placed were from ethnic minorities while a third came from the most economically marginalised communities. More than 50% were women, including in tech roles, he said.
Blair said that employers’ attitudes were changing, however. “They’ve traditionally focused on hiring from universities because they assumed that was the only way to reach great talent. They now increasingly realise it’s not.”
He urged the government to give schools more incentives to promote apprenticeships alongside the university route, to revamp school league tables so they showed outcomes other than exam results, and to remove barriers to accessing apprenticeships such as grade requirements.
Academic study was good for training the mind but he said his own degrees – in ancient history and international relations, gained at Bristol University and Yale in the US – had been “absolutely useless” in his graduate job at investment bank Morgan Stanley.
Multiverse has gained funding from firms such as Morgan Stanley, Amazon and Deloitte to train 5,000 apprentices for charities and small businesses that would otherwise be unable to afford to take them on. It focuses on apprenticeship placements in the UK and US in areas such as business operations, data science and software engineering and bills itself as an alternative to university.