Ditching the degree: consultancies eliminate obstacle to recruitment

The UK consulting industry is currently experiencing one of its busiest periods in history, growing by a quarter in 2022 in response to increased client demand. To meet these requirements, consultancy firms of all sizes have embarked on ambitious recruitment plans.

Figures collected by the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) show the management consulting sector will create 10,000 new jobs as they invest in boosting their talent pipeline over the next three years. This, it says, will create record numbers of opportunities for school leavers, apprentices and graduates.

“The UK has one of the leading management consultancy centers in the world, and the strong demand globally and in the UK for our services from clients means firms are recruiting intensively to meet demand,” says Tamzen Isacsson, MCA chief executive.

The question is, from where is all this new talent emerging – especially in a competitive labor market where it is increasingly difficult to attract employees? The answer is that more consultancies are removing one of the biggest obstacles to recruitment by doing away with the mandatory 2:1 degree for new starters.

We risk falling behind if we do not find ways to encourage new talent – Sreeram Visvanathan, IBM

With that single move, consultancies are significantly widening the net when it comes to job applicants. More than 89,000 students graduated with lower second-class honors, third-class honors or a pass in the academic year 2021-2022, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency – representing 21 percent of graduates.

Transforming consultancy recruitment policy

EY removed academic attainment from the entry criteria for its graduate, undergraduate and school leaver programs in 2015, the first of the Big Four firms to do so.

“We transformed our recruitment policy to help create a more even and fairer playing field for all candidates by focusing on their future potential,” explains Benoit Laclau, EY UK&I managing partner, consulting. “Since then, students have no longer been required to have a 2:1 degree classification to make an application.”

Last year PwC, too, removed the 2:1 degree criteria for new graduates.
“We believe that academic qualifications alone are not an indicator of workplace potential, so removing the 2:1 entry requirement has opened our roles to a greater pool of talent,” says Cathy Baxter, head of early careers at PwC.

“We were fortunate to have over 95,000 applications to our graduate and school programs last year, but this move isn’t primarily about attracting more applications. It enables us to open our roles to students from a broader range of backgrounds, including those from lower income households. It will allow us to continue our progress in driving the social mobility of PwC recruits.

We transformed our recruitment policy to help create a more even, fairer playing field for all candidates by focusing on their future potential – Benoit Laclau, EY


“When you consider the impact the pandemic has had on many students’ education, many students may be fearful about their futures. We want to show that academic achievement is not the only factor we look for when hiring, and that we want to identify those candidates who have the attributes and all-round proven capabilities for a career within the firm.”


Passion over qualifications

The change is part of a current trend among global enterprises – for the first time, fewer than half of graduate employers now stipulate a 2:1 degree. The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) has found that the number of employers demanding a 2:1 degree as minimum entry criteria for graduate jobs fell to 48 percent in 2022, down from 57 percent in 2021.

“Employers are less concerned about the subject studied than students think, and even fewer look for a master’s qualification. A fifth of employers expect applicants to have a specific subject degree and only 6 percent require a postgraduate degree,” says the ISE.

Some commentators – from the usual places – have claimed that employers are “dumbing down” and giving in to so-called “wokeism” over the shift. But Laclau says it’s more important that future recruits demonstrate a passion for technology, rather than the relevant degree in technology consultancy.

“Our selection process is designed to identify students’ strengths where they can demonstrate their potential and motivation for the role, rather than just focusing heavily on their academic or prior experience,” he says.

It enables us to open our roles to students from a broader range of backgrounds, including those from lower income households – Cathy Baxter, PwC

Lending weight to the idea of enthusiasm over experience, IBM conducted some research in 2022 that highlighted how business leaders recognized “adaptability quotient” as a better measure of their ability to thrive in any business environment than qualifications.

Says IBM’s UKI CEO Sreeram Visvanathan: “As the acceleration of enterprise technology continues to thrive, we risk falling behind if we do not find ways to encourage new talent. Today, every leader is a tech leader, and they will need to understand how best to leverage these capabilities to scale digital transformation at pace.”

Increase in apprenticeships

Work-based vocational learning programs that culminate in degree-level qualifications are also becoming increasingly popular. Apprenticeships in the consulting sector are expected to increase in record numbers this year as firms aim to bring in new and diverse talent.

In 2021, 1,200 trainees, apprentices or school leavers joined the sector, despite the pandemic, and a 2022 poll by the MCA of firms reveals that this figure is expected to increase by 25 percent. This is mainly driven by large firms who have on average 186 apprentices on program at any given time.

To that end, PwC also works with universities through its Flying Start degree apprenticeship program to broaden the opportunities available to students and help young people develop skills that are in demand from consultancies, but also across different industries and sectors.

“We understand that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to a career, so employers must provide different routes to access the best talent. The Flying Start program enables us to reach and employ the most talented people. The program also creates a more affordable and alternative pathway to work which is key to improving social mobility – a priority for us. We believe that everybody should have opportunities to succeed regardless of their social background,” says Baxter.

The Flying Start program was set up 20 years ago in partnership with Newcastle University and Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). Since then, the program has been rolled out to a further four universities. Its newest program with Queen Mary University of London is at capacity.

“Consultancies nowadays seek students who are able to be agile, analytical minds who have strong problem-solving skills,” says Dr Eran Padumadasa, deputy dean for education (employer led education), faculty of science and engineering at Queen Mary and program director of the digital and technology solutions professional degree apprenticeship.

Consultancies nowadays seek students who are able to be agile, analytical minds who have strong problem solving skills – Dr Eran Padumadasa, Queen Mary

“A degree apprenticeship not only focuses on building knowledge but also develops real-life skills and behaviors allowing students to receive business experience while they continue their studies. [It also] helps them apply the knowledge at an early stage, helping them to build reflection on learning that will reinforce learning in the long term. With the program design we create opportunities for students to learn at the workplace by enabling work-based learning modules and allowing students to apply the learning and build a reflective learning practice.”

Degrees not obsolete

These changes to the recruitment process in no way render degrees obsolete, says Lisa Rose, Accenture’s HR lead UK&I. “In addition to technical knowledge, it’s important that new recruits come to us as critical thinkers and problem solvers – inspired by their knowledge and experiences at university and further education,” she explains.

“However, we recognize that degrees are not always a prerequisite, and that some people don’t always have the opportunity, or want, to go to university. We value having a diverse pool of talent from different backgrounds that better reflects the society we operate in. It’s having people with different perspectives that inspires innovative thinking. On that basis, we offer roles for graduates, and we are hiring more apprentices than ever.”

It’s important that new recruits come to us as critical thinkers and problem solvers – Lisa Rose, Accenture

Rose says that Accenture broadened the criteria for new graduate recruits several years ago and have also been recruiting apprentices since 2013. “We look to attract and develop people who are creative, technical, can solve problems and work well in a team.

“We use immersive assessments and contextualize applications, with the help of technology, in order to remove bias. We look for potential, rather than pedigree, and measure candidates on passion and motivation as well as hard skills. We are proud to open opportunities to all, regardless of background.”

Consultancy recruitment from a range of backgrounds, skills and experiences

The practical experience embedded on apprenticeship degree programs like Flying Start allows students to receive real life experience and shape the behaviors valued by consultancies.

“Consultancies are nothing but a people business working with people to solve problems. Therefore, the biggest advantage of such programs is to equip students with real life experience to ensure students understand behaviors and develop dispositions over their experience,” says Dr Padumadasa.

Consultancies are nothing but a people business working with people to solve problems – Dr Eran Padumadasa, Queen Mary

And with consultancies now looking further afield for candidates, they can more easily find the best candidates from a range of backgrounds, skills and experiences. This actually leads on to a much bigger conversation around companies realizing they need to be more socioeconomically inclusive. (McKinsey has announced a target for 50 percent of financial and professional services leaders to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds by 2030, for example.) This diversity of voices helps organizations innovate and has a huge positive impact on the people who might apply for jobs at those organizations.

The ditching of the 2:1 degree requirement for candidates may prove positive for consultancies in more ways than they thought.