* Update, 15 May 2022: We’re in the Sunday Times! Graduates hit by stinging ‘exit fees’ from recruiters (Don’t subscribe? Click here) *

Rejoice! Channel 4 has ended its relationship with Sparta Global, saying the company’s use of large graduate ‘exit fees’ is not ‘in line with our principles and values.’

Responding to questions from Graduate Fog about exit fees as part of our campaign to Stop Exit Fees Now, a spokesperson for the company said:

‘Following a review, Channel 4 has terminated its contract with Sparta Global. Our decision to terminate the contract with SG reflects our views on this matter.’

It understood that around 10 Sparta graduates were working as IT consultants for Channel 4 at any one time between 2014 and 2019 on various tech projects, including the launch of All4.

If they had wanted to leave their roles in less than two years, the graduates were told they must pay up to £20,000 to Sparta. (The exact amount owed depended on the length of time the graduate had worked at Sparta, and what training they had had). Sparta’s exit fees later dropped to £16,000, and are currently £8,000.

The graduates worked on a number of high-profile projects during their time at Channel 4, including the pre-launch testing of All4, Channel 4’s popular streaming service. Their presence was no secret, as videos like this were created to promote the partnership between Sparta and Channel 4:

Graduate Fog has spoken to two graduates who worked at Channel 4 during this period (neither of whom is Adeeb, from the video), as Sparta contractors. They confirmed that they worked on-site at Channel 4’s offices in Victoria, central London, and felt very much part of Channel 4, even being invited to the company’s Christmas parties. One of the graduates told us:

‘I loved my time at Channel 4 but, looking back, it wasn’t right that we were working there under Sparta’s employment terms. If I’d left, I would have had to pay £12,000 immediately.

‘I’d had eight weeks of poor quality training, so I have no idea how Sparta could say I owed that much money. But I’d only just finished uni and I thought it was too late to argue because I’d signed a contract.

‘Once I started at Sparta I realised quickly that my annual salary was much lower than I’d expected, because of the way Sparta calculate it. I’d thought I’d be on £40,000 but in fact I was earning £18,000. I realised I was seriously underpaid for my skills (gained at university, not from my Sparta training), and it was harder than I anticipated to live in London on such a low wage.

‘I became quite ill during my time at Channel 4. I think it was all the stress. I wasn’t sleeping or taking care of myself properly. It sounds silly but I was in my early 20s and that feeling of being trapped has a strange impact on you. I count myself lucky I was at Channel 4. Some of the others in my cohort ended up on bad placements with Sparta clients, a long way from family and friends.

‘Now that I know more about how the exit fees companies work, I can see I was a sitting duck. My family live council housing and I was the first in my family to go to university. I was ambitious, and Sparta presented themselves as my ticket into big employers who I feared wouldn’t be interested in me, otherwise.

‘It makes me sick to see Sparta at number 32 on the Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index for 2021. Yes, they hire a lot of people like me. But you have to ask why. Is it really out of the goodness of their hearts?’

When asked whether Channel 4 staff were aware of the restrictive contracts that Sparta graduates were working under, the graduate said:

‘My manager knew about exit fees, but didn’t seem bothered. I have no idea how Channel 4 squared their commitments to diversity with using Sparta Global as a supplier.’

A second graduate told Graduate Fog, who was told he would owe £12,000 for the eight weeks of training he was given, if he left in less than two years, said:

‘Sparta told us not to talk to clients about exit fees — but my manager at Channel 4 already knew. I don’t know why he wasn’t more interested. I may be wrong, but I had the had the impression that there were links between senior people at Channel 4 and Sparta, and the decision to use Sparta had been made with all the information. Nobody at Channel 4 or Sparta seemed even slightly concerned about the pressure we were all put under, working with those fees hanging over our heads.’

Both graduates have since moved on to roles elsewhere.

Fans of Channel 4 will find these graduates’ accounts jarring, given the organisation’s reputation as one of the UK’s most forward-thinking employers, and a champion of diversity and inclusion.

It is not clear why Sparta’s exit fees policy was not considered a concern — or, if it was, why this was not escalated and the company continued to work with this supplier. Further questions remain unanswered about how Sparta Global passed Channel 4’s supplier code of conduct, and how the organisation plans to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

But, hey, a win is a win — so we’ll take it.

Here is what Channel 4’s press office said in response to our first approach to ask whether they would consider dropping Sparta as a supplier:

To: Graduate Fog
From: Channel 4

‘Channel 4 has a Supplier Code of Conduct and expects its suppliers to be in line with our principles and values. Following a review, Channel 4 has terminated its contract with Sparta Global.’

It was good news — but hardly the full-bodied statement we had hoped for, considering Channel 4’s reputation as a bold, values-led employer and champion of young people and diversity. So, we gave them a second chance. Graduate Fog’s founder, Tanya de Grunwald, wrote back with more questions. Their responses are in bold:

From: Channel 4
To: Graduate Fog

– What is Channel 4’s response to hearing about the scandal of graduate exit fees? How does it fit with Channel 4’s commitments to diversity and inclusion? As per Channel 4’s statement, we expect our suppliers to adhere to our Code of Conduct and on this occasion we have terminated our contract with Sparta Global.
– Are you concerned by the thought that – for a time – graduates worked on Channel 4 premises, on Channel 4 projects, and were not free to leave without paying large fees to their employer? Our decision to terminate the contract with SG reflects our views on this matter.
– Do you wish to express any regret or apology at the fact that that situation was allowed to happen? It wouldn’t be appropriate for Channel 4 to comment on Sparta Global’s practices specifically except to refer you to our statement and our decision to terminate the contract.
– Can you explain how it happened? Were your processes for reviewing suppliers not robust enough at the time? Have you since made changes? Our processes for reviewing suppliers and the Code of Conduct are robust.
– Will you go as far as to say C4 will never work with any of the other firms that charge large exit fees – FDM Group, Kubrick Group, Ten10, QA Consulting, Geeks Limited and Revolent? Channel 4 is not working with any of the companies listed here.

Tanya de Grunwald, founder of Graduate Fog, said:

‘I welcome Channel 4’s announcement that they are dumping Sparta Global as a supplier. It is great to see big name employers beginning to distance themselves from suppliers who choose to lock their graduates into their jobs using exit fees that only graduates with family support could afford to pay.

‘Having said that, it would have been nice if Channel 4’s response had been a bit punchier, given their reputation as a fierce champion of diversity. I think the Sparta graduates who worked at Channel 4 deserve an explanation about how this happened, Channel 4 should apologise for letting down these young people. I also remain unclear about how this was allowed to happen at Channel 4, and how they plan to make sure this doesn’t happen again, so I hope more details will be forthcoming in due course.

‘Still, compared with the disgracefully dismissive responses from the Department for Work and Pensions and HSBC regarding their use of FDM Group as a supplier, and AstraZeneca’s complete silence about the 60 Kubrick graduates currently working there, Channel 4’s decisive action is very much appreciated.’

Graduate Fog has approached Sparta Global for comment.

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