The report by employers and university careers advisers says that some firms are considering applicants only if they come from Oxbridge or a handful of redbrick universities, and a growing number are using aptitude tests which are often unreliable. Others are adding up graduates' A-level points, a practice which discriminates against mature students and those who entered higher education without traditional qualifications.
The report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the Association of Graduate Advisory Services and the Central Services Unit says employers predict a further fall in graduate vacancies of 21 per cent this year while students are showing 'the worst defeatism in years'. However, the decline in vacancies is slowing and the prediction may be pessimistic.
Tom Frank, of Birmingham University's Careers Advisory Service, said he did not blame employers for introducing new, arbitrary ways of selecting graduates. 'One major employer has had its graduate recruitment department cut from four people to one. It is receiving 1,000 applications for 10 jobs. But we are terribly concerned about the short cuts being introduced. Many perfectly good people are falling by the wayside.'
As the 'milk round' of employers' visits to colleges is cut back, students are developing new job- hunting skills. Some use newspaper advertising but many more employ 'networking skills' and make contacts in firms that interest them, the report says.
The old patterns of employment are changing as graduates turn to small firms and other jobs which have usually employed school leavers. 'A graduate job is becoming any job which a graduate is happy to do,' according to Roly Cockman, secretary of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. 'The traditional graduate job was in a large firm with structured training. In future, graduates are going to be spread much more thinly over a much larger number of firms. More of them will go into small firms.'
He said yesterday that graduates' jobs were becoming more flexible as management became less hierarchical. 'Companies have fewer supervisors so graduates are likely to start with increased responsibility and without an identifiable career pattern.'
The survey, based on responses from 304 recruiting organisations, shows that the demand for graduates was down 14 per cent last year compared with the previous year, while the number graduating was up 10.4 per cent. This year the graduate total will rise by 9.4 per cent. While most students have responded to these trends by 'being worryingly defeatist and pessimistic', a minority have become extremely active in researching jobs and approaching employers, the report says.
It adds that the introduction of student loans has increased stress as graduation approaches and students face the need to pay their debts without the guarantee of a job.
Mr Frank said students and their families should remember that an investment in education was always worthwhile. 'They should begin their careers by thinking and planning earlier so that by the time they enter their final year, they are equipped to make carefully targeted applications,' he said.