I despair watching my peers, filled with idealism about how to change the world, update their LinkedIn profilesNAN PALMERO | FLICKR

Something strange happens when you become a finalist. The workload thickens, the nights out thin, and there’s a constant murmuring of “what have you got planned for next year?”

But the weirdest thing is the shift in priority that you see from your peers. Because when you reach Lent term in third year, the swathe of do-gooding JCR volunteer-accessibility-activist-campaigners that previously devoted their time – admirably I should add – to raising money for period products, championing accessibility in college and putting on charity events, are clamouring to be footsoldiers in the very system they have always appeared to stand against: capitalism.

“Quite what leadership skills a 19 year-old could exhibit during a three week internship I don’t know”

You’ll first notice this if you have the misfortune of being on LinkedIn. While their first year boasted positions like “JCR sustainability officer”, during their second-year vacation you suddenly notice an obsequious comment from a colleague at the consulting firm they interned at congratulating them on their “leadership skills”. Quite what leadership skills a 19-year-old undergrad could exhibit during a three week internship I don’t know. That comment will inevitably accompany the dramatic lexical shift from social justice campaigning to meaningless corporate jargon – “data-driven”, “optimised delivery” – leaving you wondering, what changed? Why do students rightly exercised about inequality as an undergrad enthusiastically jump to join the companies perpetrating it when their degree comes to an end?

The obvious answer is money. Activism doesn’t pay and unless you’re planning on a PhD, you can’t survive adulthood without compromising your principles. But there’s a world of difference between becoming a morally pure but penniless PhD student and joining the firms that we’ll give a limb for. As revealed by the new book by two New York Times journalists, When McKinsey Comes to Town, elite consulting firms serve as the handmaidens to corrupt governments and greedy corporations the world over. They do their bidding by deploying talented and ambitious Oxbridge grads like you to give their actions the veneer of respectability. Take BCG’s close ties with Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, or how they profited from corruption in Angola. If you want a darker example, witness how McKinsey helped opioid manufacturers peddle products to drug addicts.


Mountain View

“Pass the clown makeup, I’ve got another interview”

No pound is ever pure, granted, but consulting serves capitalism in a way that being part of the civil service or working as an employment lawyer or developing new medicines just don’t. It is built on deploying the analytical skills of talented grads to help organisations expand to devour new markets, regardless of the client. If they happen to be an autocrat, so be it.

Some of the work undertaken by consulting firms does provide a social good. The rise of the environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) sector is pulling in well-meaning grads to look at the impact of supply chains on climate – indeed BCG earns 10% of its revenue from climate-related consulting. But that’s just 10%; the rest may not come from as socially good sources.

“I don’t blame you, Cambridge finalist, for looking at a McKinsey graduate scheme”

This is why I despair watching my peers, filled with idealism about how to change Britain, channel their talents into helping global corporations make more cash. Why? Because we need them here. Our institutions are crying out for talent but are suffering from a troubling shortage of applicants. Civil servants, criminal lawyers, doctors are all in short supply, and it’s costing lives. As the pandemic then, and the crisis in public services now, show, these are the jobs that really need doing.

This is not intended to be a personal criticism. I don’t blame you, Cambridge finalist, for looking at a McKinsey graduate scheme over training as a criminal barrister. If you aren’t from London but want to live there, a public sector job may not cut it. Instead the tragedy lies in a situation where the minds of this incredible university are funnelled into places where they contribute little social good and potentially even cause harm. If you are fortunate enough to have the choice, make the right one.