Expert View: Oxbridge rowers need not apply

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The Independent Online

Are you looking for a job? If so, take heart. After the longest bear market for a generation, and tens of thousands of redundancies, City human resources departments are once more dusting off their recruitment procedures. It is estimated that 4,000 jobs will be created in the Square Mile in 2004, and 8,000 next year. If anything, these are probably underestimates. The ebb and flow of City employment is about more than just the individuals involved. Such turning points can lead to cultural change. The new buzz word for recruiters is "diversity".

Are you looking for a job? If so, take heart. After the longest bear market for a generation, and tens of thousands of redundancies, City human resources departments are once more dusting off their recruitment procedures. It is estimated that 4,000 jobs will be created in the Square Mile in 2004, and 8,000 next year. If anything, these are probably underestimates. The ebb and flow of City employment is about more than just the individuals involved. Such turning points can lead to cultural change. The new buzz word for recruiters is "diversity".

On a recent visit to the dentist, I was strapped into the chair while waxing lyrical about a think-tank I had just attended on university top-up fees. How exciting it had been to be involved in a passionate debate at the heart of politics. My dentist deprived me of speech and, to the sound of the drill, lectured me on just how little, as a father of three, he cared about my social engineering. "Is it safe?" he asked.

The Social Market Foundation's debate on university top-up fees attracted a bunch of articulate academics and backbench MPs. My dentist's concern featured low on the participants' agenda. All they cared about was "access" or, as one put it, genetic wastage. Of the 43 per cent who go into higher education, 30 per cent come from the top 40 per cent of socio-economic groups, and only 13 per cent from the bottom 60 per cent. But, it emerged from the debate, by the time young people have reached the age of 18, it is far too late to correct this. We focused too much on input, and not at all on output - the value of the product of our education system.

The director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Digby Jones, made a speech last year in which he deplored the poor quality of graduates. "Sadly," he said, "there are a lot of lecturers ... who believe that all businessmen want to do is cheat their customers, lie to their shareholders and rip off their employees." Mr Jones should be more circumspect in this post-Enron age, but he does have a point. Twenty-five per cent of companies complain that graduates lack any "business awareness". Even more complain of general weakness in core skills such as verbal communication, problem solving and team working. The increase in "vocational" study has not helped. I have interviewed MBAs who have none of these basic skills, while some historians, say, excel in them.

Like the rest of business, the City is forced to choose from this often poorly educated product. In consequence, we fall back on the stereotype "white, male Oxbridge rower" or a variation on that theme. But times are changing. The American banks have universally committed to diversity, with mission statements to match. The Interbank Diversity Forum, representing several top banks, lobbied recruitment agencies last year to embrace the benefits of diversity. Lobby groups are also active on behalf of the recruits themselves, such as the African and Caribbean Finance Forum.

This is all long overdue. A broadening of the City's culture can only help it compete in a globalised environment. The treatment of women, let alone minorities, remains appalling. In a recent case, one woman suing her employer, claiming she was sacked for being pregnant, pointed out that her company had held team meetings at lap-dancing bars and golf clubs.

But like the backbenchers struggling to realise that 18 is too late to correct social imbalance, we must also recognise that 21 may be too late to create social diversity. Presented with limited choices, it is easy to fall back on the rowers. Maybe we should all be taking an interest in the Government's new fascination with early education.

christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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