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Education News

Will your results have the right vintage? be worth?

As employers size up candidates from both the old and newer universitie s, Roger Trapp and Judith Judd look at the relative value of their degrees their qualifications wer institutions
It is probably apocryphal, but the story goes that a university finalist was being shown around a department store chain's flagship outlet when he noticed a shoplifter at work. Without saying a word to his escort, he gave chase and - being full of youthful vigour - soon caught up with and rugby-tackled the villain in the street outside. He was, of course, given a job on the spot.

If you pressed your narrator you would probably discover that the hero of this tale was a student at one of "our older universities" - as graduate recruiters are fond of referring to Oxford and Cambridge - where he had been as noticeable for his sporting prowess as for his academic ability. After all, the dreaming spires were meant to be the home of the Corinthian spirit.

But times change, and now companies recruiting graduates tend to assume that Oxbridge - plus a handful of other, generally well-established names - is the repository of intellectual distinction. For the less definable characteristics, the people skills that are supposed to be so important today, they might look further afield.

However, two things prevent this leading to a bonanza for students from newer universities, in particular those that were until recently polytechnics. First, the increasing professionalisation of management means that many more employers than just the law and accountancy firms of old need to take on people who can pass examinations. Second, growing competition is forcing them to get the best return on their recruitment spending - and that means going back to where they already have strong links and where they have had good results in the past.

At Coopers & Lybrand, Britain's largest accountancy firm, Ian du Pre, the longstanding national recruitment partner, is fairly blunt. Simple economics dictate the hiring habits of an organisation that takes on 750 to 800 people a year, he suggests.

It is not a case of degrees from former polytechnics being distrusted, it is just that if someone obtained three Es at A-level and a 2:2 degree from a "lesser institution" there "is a danger that they may fail the exams". With the cost of training an accountant put at pounds 100,000 over three years, that is not something to be taken lightly.

While admitting that the emphasis of the training might change in the future, he says that, as long as the syllabus is examination-based, "It's no good getting somebody of personality if they never qualify as a chartered accountant."

Similar sentiments are expressed at Clifford Chance, the country's largest law firm. Chris Perrin, partner responsible for recruitment, says the practice will "accept and look seriously" at applications from anyone, whichever university they come from. But in practice a lot of the attention is focused on the older institutions.

Unlike many other big recruiters, Clifford Chance does not actually go to the universities to look formally at candidates; they come to its glass palace in the City. But it does give some presentations to students. These tend to take place at a select band of establishments such as Oxbridge, London, Durham, Bristol, Exeter and Birmingham.

Why? First, past experience tells the firm how to organise the events at the older universities - it does not have the necessary contacts at the newer ones. Second, the firm is not sure holding such events at less well-established centres would attract "enough people of the right calibre to make the investment in time worthwhile".

Mr Perrin and his colleagues are a little more accommodating when it comes to the Common Professional Examination course, which enables non- law graduates to acquire the equivalent of a law degree in a year. Accepting that one or two of the former polytechnics, such as Birmingham and Nottingham, have competed well on results with the College of Law, Mr Perrin points out that the firm puts a limit on the number of people entering it by this route. This is because there is still a feeling that a law degree provides a better overall legal grounding and because, once again, of cost. Since law graduates take a year less to qualify, they are cheaper to Clifford Chance, which habitually pays its would-be recruits' way through the vocational training.

Prospects for those graduating from places with names less familiar to employers are not all bleak, though. It would appear that the further one gets from the traditional professions, such as law and accountancy, and the closer to selling, the better are their chances.

At National Westminster Bank's UK retail operation, for example, a spokesman says the business seeks its approximately 150 recruits a year from all types of university rather than just a small group. Pointing out that the bank is looking for people with such skills as talking effectively with and advising customers, he adds that other necessary skills include future leadership potential, good communication, decisiveness, problem- solving, team building, and the rest. And NatWest, not unreasonably, takes the view that such attributes can be found in a variety of places.

Few large organisations take the approach of Marks & Spencer, however. In common with its peers, M&S, which has a target of more than 200 graduates this year, takes the line that it will accept applications from anywhere - only one suspects that the emphasis is the reverse of the usual.

Certainly, the highly regarded retail courses at Manchester Metropolitan University and Bournemouth University - both until recently polytechnics - have led to the company forging strong links with them. These help the establishment of industrial placements, which often lead to offers of permanent work.

But it is not just having studied retailing that wins over M&S. Completion of a specialist course in information technology or some other aspect of technology can also put a candidate ahead of others.

Practical degrees like these - which are relatively commonplace at some of the better-established newer universities, such as Aston and Strathclyde - also attract the attention of Unilever, Shell and others. While they might seek their special expertise in these places, though, they are more likely to fall back on the old standbys for general management recruits.

Shell says its list of favoured institutions is not short - certainly more than a handful, in the words of a spokesman. But Unilever - justifying its policy with the help of records going back decades - says its list is unlikely to be very different from anybody else's top 10.

Unilever, a multinational with interests as wide-ranging as washing powder and margarine, hires about 80 people a year, many of them from Oxbridge, large universities such as London and Manchester and well-established smaller ones, such as Bristol and Durham. While it has no representatives as yet of the establishments that became universities most recently, newer institutions, such as Warwick, Bath and Loughborough, as well as the engineer- packed Strathclyde, are beginning to get a look-in.

What all this means, says Martin Duffell, the company's head of management recruitment, is that Oxford and Cambridge have a lot of people who are best, at least in academic terms (according to the company's records, 35 per cent of the best 1 per cent of performers in its intelligence tests went to one or other of those universities). But it also means that they attract the most recruiters.

The company that finds a strong candidate at a less well-known university is therefore likely to encounter less competition for his or her services - simply because of the absence of rivals, he adds.

There is, according to Coopers and Lybrand's Mr du Pre, a growing awareness that "there are some dullards at the big names and perky people at smaller institutions". But it seems that as long as the name of the game is to "get people with personality, subject to the ability to pass exams", there will be a reluctance to risk years of slim pickings in the hope of plucking a plum.