Are SUs a barrier to realising aspiration?

Policy Press has published “The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and Our Children’s Fading Prospects”.

Here we feature some extracts focussed on students, SUs and extra-curricular activity:

Getting started

“My own involvement in the student union was what got me my my first ‘proper’ job after university (as a member of staff in a student union). In some careers, the skills and experiences developed in extra-curricular activities are not just useful but necessary. Over the last 20 years of my own working life, I’ve interviewed lots of candidates for graduate jobs, and — because there are lots of graduates — the ones who get the jobs are those who have demonstrated practical organisational ability, very often as an officer of a student society or in a student union role.

While these extra-curricular activities can act as a route to opportunity, that route is often blocked for the students who could benefit most. Sometimes this is just because it feels alienating. Despite his provincial middle-class background, Stephen— the CEO-to-be — wasn’t posh enough to feel welcome In the Labour Club at his Russell Group university: ‘I left within six months’, he says, ‘Lots of politicians’ children, lots of people from public schools’. (But other student societies can be more approachable than expected. Some student Conservative Associations have a reputation of being less-than-welcoming towards working-class people, but Jackie Doyle-Price’s experience did not bear this out: ‘although Durham had a lot of more traditional Conservative people’, Jackie told me, ‘lhey weren’t involved in the Conservative Association. The officers were people like me and Graham Brady’

Proactive innovations

“In some universities, more proactive innovations are being put in place to make those institutions feel more welcoming to a wider group. A number of students’ unions are now creating ‘working-class officers’, representatives elected from among the student body, partly to bring people together, to increase the sort of chance encounters by which Maria met Dean. These representatives also allow working-class students a means of advocating for ways in which their needs can be met by educational institutions overwhelmingly run by people from very different backgrounds.

The idea of ‘working-class officers’ is still relatively new — and as Stuart’s experience illustrates, in some institutions it is not just working-class people who feel excluded by lack of relative privilege — but it is a positive development, recognising that all of us who find ourselves in alien environments not only need someone to guide us, but also someone to understand us.

Hidden costs and barriers

“Often, activities are just unaffordable, partly because clubs and societies can run into hundreds of a year, but mainly because students from less-affluent backgrounds are more likely to have to take part-time jobs in ‘extra-curricular’ hours. They are also more likely to have caring responsibilities for family members, or to live with their families and therefore have longer commutes to campus. Timetabling of extra-curricular activities (and often of academic teaching) ignores commuter students, perhaps because the decision-makers in universities disproportionately come from more privileged backgrounds, among whom being a commuter student is much less common and therefore tends to be overlooked.

Another barrier preventing students from non-privileged backgrounds participating in extra-curricular activities is that they are deliberately avoiding such activities, seeing them not as a means of personal and career development, but rather as a waste of time, a distraction from the academic elements of student life that are seen as the ‘real’ engine of opportunity. Students from non-privileged backgrounds are often told by their families to concentrate on the academic work and not to waste time on sports and societies or getting involved in the students’ union. I got told this too. Luckily, I ignored this advice.

CV-enhancing extra-curricular opportunities available through public and semi-public institutions (including universities’ societies, sports clubs and student union officer roles) should also be required to report data on the backgrounds of participants and whether these reflect the backgrounds of the wider population.

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