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The Civil Service Fast Stream in six charts

The Government has announced changes to the Civil Service’s flagship graduate development scheme to improve diversity. Ollie Hirst examines the latest data on applications and appointments to the Civil Service Fast Stream, as well as success rates for candidates from different educational, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.

See our explainer for our more recent analysis of the Civil Service Fast Stream.

Civil Service Fast Stream recruitment is very competitive, although the number of appointments has been increasing since 2011.

The Fast Stream remains a very competitive process: in 2014, over 20,000 people applied for one of the 915 available positions, so only about one in twenty applicants received a place on the scheme. The number of applicants has risen since 2004, when the introduction of a new online self-assessment test saw a sharp reduction in the quantity of applications. While the number of appointments increased by 6% from 2013 to 2014, an increase in the number of applications meant that the success rate was slightly lower in 2014 than in the previous year. 

However, success rates vary across the different streams.

The ‘Generalist’ stream – covering Central departments, the Houses of Parliament, Diplomatic Service and Science/Engineering – accounts for the majority of Fast Stream applications: in 2014, there were around 11,000 candidates for 306 vacancies. The largest stream – Central Departments – had a success rate of 4.2% in 2014. Most competitive are the Houses of Parliament and Northern Ireland streams, which each have a success rate of 1%. At the other end of the spectrum the Social Research stream, despite having only 45 vacancies in 2014, received fewer than 300 first-preference applications, giving it the highest success rate – 18.4%. The more popular Economist stream had around 1,200 first-preference applications, but its high number of vacancies (244) meant that 16.2% of applicants were successful.

Success rates for male and female applicants have been very similar.

In 2014, for the first time in five years, male candidates had a higher success rate than female applicants. However, success rates have been very similar since 1998, and over the longer term women have been on average more likely to be successful than men in the Fast Stream recruitment process. That is because, while slightly less than half of applications come from women, they make up around half of appointments in most years.

Candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds have a lower success rate than those from higher backgrounds.

Unlike the other measures, data on the socio-economic status of Fast Stream applicants is only available from 2011. Candidates were asked about the occupational background of their parents, which could be ‘Higher Managerial, Administrative or Professional’, ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Routine and Manual’. In 2014, 70% of applicants came from a professional background, but make up a higher percentage of appointments (78%). In comparison, while those from ‘routine and manual’ backgrounds accounted for 7% of Fast Stream applications in 2014, they constituted only 4% of appointments to the scheme. Although these figures should be treated with caution, given the sizeable proportion of candidates who chose not to declare their socio-economic background, it is clear that, with regard to socio-economic background (SEB), the Fast Stream is unrepresentative of the population at large. A recent report commissioned by the Cabinet Office concluded that a lack of socio-economic diversity at the application stage (largely due to low levels of awareness of the scheme among lower SEB students) is compounded by the recruitment process, with a larger proportion of higher SEB candidates progressing at every stage of selection. As the report says, the current profile of the Fast Stream intake is “less diverse than the student population of the University of Oxford.”

Oxbridge graduates make up a decreasing proportion of Fast Stream appointments, but remain overrepresented compared to applications.

The success rate for candidates who attended Oxford or Cambridge universities for their first degree remains higher than that for non-Oxbridge candidates, as it has every year since 1998. But the Oxbridge advantage has narrowed: Oxbridge graduates are now 2.6 times more likely to succeed than the average applicant, compared to 3.4 times in 2012 and 4.8 times in 1998.

Applicants from an ethnic minority are less likely to succeed than white candidates.

In 2014, white candidates had a success rate of 4.9%, compared to 3.3% for candidates from an ethnic minority. This represents the widest gap since 2009, and means that BAME applicants are only around 70% as likely to be successful as white applicants. However, 14.2% of this year’s Fast Stream intake was from a BAME background, notably more than the Civil Service as a whole; this is perhaps testament to the early introduction of practices such as name-blind recruitment in the Fast Stream application process. Yet, as the Civil Service Commission found in its review of Fast Stream recruitment, questions remain around whether the Fast Stream is attracting its ‘fair share’ of the most able BAME graduates, or whether it should do more to target this group. While the programme has become increasingly diverse, the proportion of minority ethnic appointments is still lower than the target population at UK universities.

During the last parliament, the Civil Service Commission expressed concern at the lack of data on the performance of different groups of candidates in the application and assessment process. It suggested that this is a barrier to identifying the nature of problems and diagnosing what will be effective in improving diversity outcomes. Indeed, as the Cabinet Office’s study makes clear, there is a need for a more robust methodology for measuring and monitoring diversity in the Fast Stream, as well as a more strategic approach to engaging talented candidates from a wider range of backgrounds. But the report itself is a positive step, as are the immediate adoption of some of its recommendations – such as opening new regional assessment centres outside of London – and the upcoming publication of a social mobility strategy.

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