More evidence out this week confirms what, in the main, we already know. Access to the most selective universities for working class young people is not only incredibly unequal, but apparently in decline, according to the latest report of the Milburn commission on social mobility and child poverty.
There are two camps in the access debate. The first, held by successive governments and their respective tsars and experts, is that not enough bright working class young people are attending ‘good’ universities. At best, this is a pragmatic position: in our society power and money accrue to people whose aspirations cluster around a specific set of career directions and personal behaviours (like attending a prestigious university), so the way to ensure a wider spread of power and money is to encourage more people to adopt those aspirations. That is, assuming a sufficient proportion of them are clever enough to merit such reward.
A second school of thought frames the issue in terms of as many people as possible gaining access to the university that is ‘right for them’, recognising that defining aspiration as the hope of entering a specific type of higher education institution or one of a narrow range of middle-class professions is at the very least lacking in imagination. Certainly it is patronising to working class people, and possibly economically problematic in that promoting conformity to a specific aspiration is hardly going to help the UK innovate its way out of recession.
Although a superficially appealing way of embracing institutional diversity and avoiding out and out elitism it is immediately apparent that ‘right for me’ will always be mediated by social and cultural context. Which is why we will continue to need professionals whose job it is to support informed, positive choice-making for entry to higher education.
It is worth pausing to reflect, however, that access to a specific type of university is only a proxy for social mobility, and not the most reliable proxy at that. Evidence collected by the UpReach project suggests that even where working class young people win the golden ticket to a ‘top institution’, they don’t get the same benefit as their well-to-do peers in terms of employment outcomes or salary. As more evidence uncovered this week from projects undertaken at Oxford Brookes and Cardiff shows, academic performance is not the issue – class is.
Increasingly, access professionals recognise that retention, progression, academic attainment and employment outcomes are dimensions of the access question. OFFA guidance now directs institutional access spend at retention and success measures, not just at outreach, for example. Students from all backgrounds (and students of all ages) need to be able to flourish and succeed at university, not just get in.
Selective institutions do not, of course, promote narrow aspirations for their students, but to hear policymakers talk you would think they existed for no other purpose than to catapult people into respectable careers. Meanwhile, out in the labour market, people are doing an incredible array of weird and wonderful job roles that never feature in any discussion about ‘the professions’ mainly because they are too specialised for the general public to understand what they are.
So as the case for a more outcomes-focused approach to access develops, it will be important not just to think about how to help working class students at selective institutions behave more like their middle class peers in the hope of living the middle class professional dream, unless they genuinely want to of course.
Instead, it will be necessary to ask what outcomes do people want from higher education and how can higher education enable people to achieve their aspirations. And, more mundanely, how can we demonstrate that in figures.
Education in the abstract can be an end in itself, but getting into a higher education institution should never be considered the end, or the height of a person’s aspiration. We can celebrate institutional and individual diversity, but we have to do that with a laser-like focus on what higher education is doing for people. Only then will the idea of an institution being ‘right for me’ have any real meaning attached to it.