This article is more than 3 years old

Ladders are best designed by people who know what it’s like to climb one

Duncan Exley reflects on the realities of university through the eyes of first-generation students
This article is more than 3 years old

Duncan Exley is the former Director of the Equality Trust, taking time out to write on social mobility.

An Englishman bought a birthday present for his German friend (or so the story goes) and wrapped it up for mailing to Germany. He wrote ‘gift’ on the package so his friend knew not to open it before his birthday. When his friend received the package he panicked and called the police.

In German, ‘gift’ means poison.

We don’t have to speak different languages to have conflicting understandings of the same word. Take the word university, for example. As part of the research for my forthcoming book on social mobility, I interviewed a number of people about their experiences of university. Most were the first in their family to go into higher education or the first to go to an ‘elite’ university. I also spoke to students from more privileged backgrounds. It soon became apparent that the two groups’ understanding of HE is not the same.

I’m in love with a fairytale

It may sound odd to people for whom going to university is the default option but for many first-generation students, university is like a fairytale. We anticipate a place where we can finally be ourselves, escape our previous life and live happily ever after. It takes time to process that we’re really there and then adjust to the – sometimes jarring – reality.

Romantic expectations of university life often results in first-generation students arriving well-prepared for an experience they won’t have. Two people I interviewed hadn’t realised they were allowed to bring personal items to decorate their rooms in halls of residence and consequently created a fresher’s week impression as people with the aesthetic tastes of a horror movie serial killer.

Talking different

Students who made it to a university “above their station” were likely to be unusual among their schoolmates in their level of enthusiasm for engaging with education and happily anticipated being in the company of others with who they could debate and discuss. But as Beccy Earnshaw, Director of Voice 21 argues, those students often find themselves in seminars with privately educated classmates who are “so much more confident than you and speak in a way that you don’t speak”. The opportunity to debate and discuss is there but, unexpectedly, the confidence is not. “You spend a good two terms”, says Earnshaw “building your confidence back up to be able to participate”. Academics are likely to mistake this meekness for lack of ability or disengagement.

First-generation students also report that teachers and parents have often given the impression that if you get “a good degree from a good uni” you’ll have employers “crawling all over you”. This misconception, combined with the time it takes to adapt to the reality of HE, means such students tend to engage with careers-support services too late – if at all – to take up opportunities such as summer internships.

The key the secret

The belief that a degree is the key to a good career also makes it less likely that first-generation students will take part in extra-curricular activities. (This is also partly because they can’t afford the cost or work part-time because their family can’t supplement an inadequate maintenance loan). Many have been told by parents and others not to waste time on sports and other activities when they could be studying. The consequences of this often don’t become apparent until the student has graduated and is being turned down for jobs because they don’t have a rounded CV.

Some of these problems have obvious solutions. Learning from programmes that familiarise first-generation students with university life, such as the Sutton Trust’s summer schools, can help reduce ill-preparedness. Training academics in facilitation skills is a way to ensure more students feel able to speak up in seminars. And automatically enrolling students in careers-support programmes early in their academic career (as is done at York) can overcome the tendency of first-generation students to leave it too late to consider their career options, especially if such support also makes clear the benefits of extra-curricular experience.

First-generation students’ perceptions of HE can be hard for staff and student unions to comprehend, especially if they themselves come from backgrounds in which going to university is the norm. (A running theme in my book, not confined to HE, is that ladders to opportunity are usually designed by people who’ve never had to climb one). The best way to address this is to do as employers like the Civil Service do, and draw upon the experience of their internal social mobility champions – people with relevant personal experience who can both lend an understanding ear and advise on outreach, recruitment, and progression.

2 responses to “Ladders are best designed by people who know what it’s like to climb one

  1. Excellent article. Those issues – lack of confidence, mistakenly assuming a good degree = walking into a good job, and prioritising working flat-out to maximise degree class over the social & extra-curricular activities – are exactly the mistakes I made.

    I’d add to that the need for early-career guidance to help graduates play the organisational politics game and successfully network. It took me at least a decade to realise that working hard in a job and being very good at it does not necessarily translate into career success, and that was in an organisation that tries very hard to be meritocratic.

  2. Thanks Pete.

    I think you’re absolutely right about the early-career guidance. Another chapter of my book* is about career progression:a number of the people I interviewed (including some who went on the very prominent careers) said they’d started work believing the way to get promoted is similar to the way of becoming a fairy-tale princess, good, hardworking and modest, and wait for your virtue to be rewarded. Their colleagues from more-privileged backgrounds, in contrast had absorbed the protocols of progression from their parents’ dinner table conversations.

    * Did I mention there’s a book? available for pre-order now, idea gift for all the family etc etc:

Leave a Reply