Why are we still talking about raising aspiration?

Is rewriting access and participation plans and refocussing on "place" the right approach? Alex Blower welcomes a new broom at the Office for Students

Alex Blower is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth

Back at the end of November, I was sat in the virtual room of a GuildHE WP Network meeting, feeling incredibly sorry for a representative of the Office for Students (OfS) who was in attendance and facing a barrage of questions.

In the hours immediately preceding the event, John Blake’s appointment as OfS’ new Director for Fair Access and Participation had been announced. In a manoeuvre which ran almost parallel, Michelle Donelan, Universities Minister, had penned a letter suggesting the policy landscape surrounding access and participation was about to change substantially.

Needless to say the publication of this letter, alongside the announcement of Blake’s appointment, caused quite the stir. Contained within it was rhetoric suggesting an imminent overhaul of institutional Access and Participation Plans (to reduce bureaucracy?!) and a refocusing of providers outreach efforts toward place and “levelling up”.

There was also the usual discourse around “aspiration raising” – despite the fact that a focus on aspiration has been widely discredited as both unhelpful and ineffective in academic research.

Now, following a bit of time to reflect over the break and as Blake gets to work, the task of thinking through what implementation might have to look like comes into sharp focus.

The good?

One of the elements of the letter which was arguably quite encouraging was a focus on the local. Reconciling meeting the needs of communities which can be markedly different depending on their geographic, social and economic contexts, whilst at the same time being given little room for manoeuvre against targets set at a national level, has historically been a real challenge.

More freedom to develop activity and set targets based on local need is good. It affords greater opportunity to work in partnership with community groups, third sector organisations and local authorities. To co-construct activity based on what has been identified as being most helpful.

However, we need to be cautious. Historically institutions have had a habit of jumping in with projects based on assumptions about what underrepresented groups think, feel and need. As universities we need to understand where we can support and how. Providing opportunities which are useful and meaningful to those we wish to engage will be key.

The bad?

As a staff member at a small specialist institution which focuses on the arts, no matter how much the government would like us to, we are not well placed to provide tutorials in GCSE Maths and English. Indeed, it could be argued we’d be doing our local community a disservice if we tried to do so.

Aside from the obvious questions raised about using money from student tuition fees to plug gaps in secondary education, there are immediate questions about the likely success of such an endeavour.

Even if a university did have the perquisite subject-level expertise to resource such activity, how well would a professor in astrophysics stack up against a qualified secondary school teacher when thinking about the tools needed to effectively teach a group of 15 year olds?

That doesn’t mean that universities can’t play an important role in raising pupil attainment, but the focus needs to be much, much broader. Take the stark disparity in boy’s GCSE attainment. This year we’re one of several local universities working in partnership to deliver a teacher CPD series. It discusses a range of issues faced by young men in education – from socio-economic inequality, to masculinity, mental health and teacher expectations.

None of these involve subject-specific tutoring, but research tells us that they play a substantial role in contributing to just 24 percent of boys on Free School Meals achieving a grade 9-5 in GCSE Maths and English within our local region. We’re not the experts on this stuff as individuals. But as a group, we’re well placed to provide a platform for those that are, sharing their knowledge and expertise directly with teachers and advisors working with young male students in schools.

Work like this provides opportunities which add value, supporting those who are best placed to be delivering subject content in GCSE Maths and English – the teachers.

The ugly?

Aside from the above there were also a couple of areas which, if not handled in with care, have the potential to get a bit messy. The Donelan speech signalled that a greater focus will be placed on getting students “through”, rather than just “to” university. That’s a sentiment which many of us would consider to be a good thing.

However, how we measure success against those ambitions is an important question. Will we be measuring the distance travelled by graduates personally, socially and educationally, or simply by what is deemed to be the most “legitimate” outcome in terms of employment?

And with the introduction of lifelong learning entitlements and a planned growth of level 4 and 5 qualifications, how do we ensure that such qualifications are treated with a parity of esteem when compared to 3 year, “traditional” undergraduate degrees?

More questions than answers

It’s fair to say that right now as a sector we have far more questions than we do answers about what’s coming next in access and participation. In all likelihood there’s going to be good bits, bad bits and ugly bits. However, one of the most important things is the approach we collectively take to them.

With local, place-based approaches we have an opportunity to (re)align with universities’ civic strategies, and ensure our work provides meaningful opportunities. That’s less about “raising aspiration” and more about supporting the development of expectations – providing opportunities that scaffold abstract hopes or ambitions with the social and cultural resources necessary to frame level 4 study as something people can reasonably expect to do.

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