Don’t dismiss student social activity as optional

Duncan Exley considers what's missing from the student experience when teaching goes online - and why it matters to social mobility.

Going to university was a vital part of my ‘social mobility’ story. But going to lectures and seminars wasn’t.

My parents were manual workers who – like the vast majority of working-class children at the time – failed the eleven-plus. Unlike them, I went on to be a chief executive, have a book published by a university press and be accused of being part of the “establishment”.

The main value of university for me was that it was a place in which I formed relationships with people from backgrounds unlike my own. By spending time with these people, I learned some of the unwritten facts and protocols of life in the professional and managerial classes.

Without such training I wouldn’t have known that some of the opportunities I later grasped had even existed, wouldn’t have known the procedure for attaining them, and wouldn’t have known the conventions and expectations necessary to thrive in an environment peopled by privileged people who’d absorbed the rules from conversations at their parents’ dinner-table.

The end of aspiration

My experience is far from unique: the book I had published is about social mobility, and draws on many hours of conversations with people who have also pursued “ideas above their station”, in a wide variety of careers (an actor, a barrister, a corporate CEO and various others).

In the conclusion to The End of Aspiration? I identify four themes that were recurring in their life stories, one of which is “social mixing and ‘posh friends’ ”.

A typical example is Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP for Thurrock, who’s the daughter of a builder and comes from a “council estate” in Sheffield:

Getting to grips with the anthropology of the privileged classes, says Jackie, is bruising and time-consuming: “we [the upwardly mobile] are more resilient, but it takes a long time to absorb knowledge.” Jackie had had at least some grounding in elite social codes as a result of her experiences as a student: “I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been to Durham, you need to know what you’re up against’”.

Posh friends (any friends)

In the current circumstances, it’s almost impossible to meet “posh friends” at university. Teaching and contact is in virtual spaces, and there is no opportunity to go to the students’ union bar with your course-mates, have a kickabout with your fellow members of the student football club, or meet anyone in the kitchen of your university accommodation.

As this continues into September, this will disproportionately affect students from the sorts of ordinary backgrounds who aren’t ordinarily found in our more prestigious universities: their more-privileged peers have other opportunities to build a network of posh friends, and don’t need to be tutored in the protocols of the privileged.

Universities justify their – typically £9,250 – tuition fees on the basis that graduates have better career prospects, but for students from backgrounds like mine, much of the career-boosting element of university life is not currently being delivered.

Full price?

This raises an obvious question, of whether it is justifiable to charge full fees to students who aren’t getting either the mingling-photogenically-on-campus experience used in university marketing materials, or some of the main career-boosters that have allowed such high fees to be justified.

If I were NUS, I’d be considering putting that question of discounts and refunds to a test case.

It also raises a less obvious question. If social mixing is such a boost to the career prospects of students, especially those from ordinary backgrounds, then why aren’t universities and student unions doing more to make sure it actually happens?

Why are they allowed to point at the social mix of their student body as evidence of widening participation, but keep schtum about the fact that those from “low participation” backgrounds are disproportionally corralled into courses like nursing where they won’t bother the students on the posher courses?

Why aren’t SUs required to report on – and if necessary improve – the social mix of their officers and affiliated clubs and societies?

Why are students allowed do group work with their friends, like they won’t be able to do when they get a job? And given that getting used to remote work and multi-organisational teams is now a key workplace skill, why not have collaborative projects that involve group work between students at, say, Balliol and Bolton?

If universities are going to promise in their promotional materials (of which this is only one example among many) that “you make a diverse group of friends”, then they should reimburse students who aren’t provided with reasonable opportunity to take up that promise.

3 responses to “Don’t dismiss student social activity as optional

  1. The assumption that you cannot make university friends – from any and all backgrounds – online is simply untenable, as thousands of Open University students will tell you.

    My OU experience yielded stronger, more varied and more lasting friendships than my experience at Cambridge.

  2. It’s not black or white. You can make friends online. Online lacks the social cues of physical meeting. I feel the focus of the article is UG students. Maybe today’s UG students are even better prepared to make friends online than today’s PG students, but there is still something to miss in not being able to meet on the sports field, in the bar, or even in a corridor, which are part of the proposition of most HEIs but not the OU. OU charges about a 1/3 less for that reason, which is also the point of this article.

  3. Interesting but it ignores the experience of “commuter students” who, at some universities, make up over 50% of the student body. Often these fall into the very backgrounds that we seek to attract through widening access measures. They tend to have less engagement in the social side of higher education and we are possibly putting too much emphasis on a “traditional university experience”. Things have changed in the last twenty years and will continue to do so.

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