Category Archives: Widening participation

Higher education, social mobility, Leicester City and the NFL

This week I spoke at the Bridge Group’s inaugural conference Bridging the Gaps: Fair Access to University and the Professions. The event coincided with the launch of two reports by the group, a ‘bottom up’ charitable think-and-do tank comprised of people working in and around the higher education sector concerned about widening participation and fair access to university as well as access to the professions and other blue-chip graduate employment. The report launched on the day, in which I have a featurette, focused on what happens after the first degree. A few days earlier, the Group published a report commissioned by the Civil Service’s ‘Fast Stream’ recruitment strand, looking at the diversity of its entry and noting that this is less diverse than the intake to Oxbridge.

The conference was a great success, bringing together academic researchers, widening participation practitioners, employers and the third sector and demonstrating that there is genuine commitment to tackling these issues to be found in many places. For me, there were two very clear (and straightforward) conclusions from the event. First, simply securing access to higher education for under-represented groups is not enough to achieve social mobility. We need to look at what happens afterwards, whether that is recruitment of graduates in the labour market or access to postgraduate study. Presenter after presenter highlighted the hidden advantages of cultural capital enjoyed by graduates from advantaged backgrounds as recruiters – unconsciously or not – select in their own image. Particularly interesting here was the study by Louise Ashley and colleagues on how social class background influences progression within the firm. This ties in to Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison’s seminal research on the ‘class ceiling’, where they show an earnings penalty for the upwardly mobile compared to those in the same occupation who are socially immobile.

Second, obsession with institutional status permeates graduate employment (and probably postgraduate recruitment) practices. A few employers are starting to examine and review their use of first-degree institution as a filter to their graduate recruitment process and widen the net. However the strong impression remains that the more prestigious graduate schemes focus their efforts on a small set of universities within the Russell Group. Keynote speaker Greg Dyke told a probably-not-very-apocryphal anecdote about a graduate recruiter for an elite law firm claiming they were widening their graduate recruitment pool: now they would look for graduates from certain University of London institutions, not just Oxford and Cambridge. I hope this is not the case when it comes to selection to postgraduate degrees, but it is quite possible. We know that there are stark differences in progression rates to postgraduate study for graduates from different universities, but the postgraduate admissions process is currently a bit of a ‘black box’. We do not know how much these institutional differences result from different rates of application or acceptance for graduates across institutions.

A key challenge raised by employers was the commercial imperative behind graduate recruitment. To some extent, this meant hiring graduates who they thought would be a good ‘fit’ with the organisation and who would be able to relate to their clients. While some of the major employers present, like hosts KPMG, argued that their client base was diverse so their workforce had to be too, I suspect that most employers do not know or care that they have an issue. Getting the best talent was a concern for all employers though, since this directly affects the bottom line. On the face of it at least, graduates from the most prestigious universities with top grades are the ones appearing to offer most to employers. If this is a socially as well as academically selected group, well for many firms that will be a secondary consideration at best. Here firms are behaving not unlike universities in selecting for undergraduate degrees – they want to widen the pool, but ultimately grades matter most.

It is here where I want to draw on two sporting examples to highlight what is wrong with this model. First, football. As a Leicesterian[1] I am obviously desperate to contrive as many opportunities as possible to talk about Leicester City while our moment of glory lasts. Call me a pessimist, but I’ve seen what has happened to Blackburn, Portsmouth and, er Nottingham Forest (hahahahaha) so I’m making hay while the sun shines.[2]

The English Premier League has 99 problems, but lack of meritocracy is not one. The team that scores more goals than its opponents most often become champions. Players end up in the team based on how much they contribute to achieving this. Every week, tens of thousands of people pay a lot of money to turn up and watch their team and hence they are quick to point out to managers in colourful language when a player isn’t cutting it – and quick to point the same out to directors about managers too. At least in terms of the players, the League is diverse and a route to untold social mobility for those in Britain from deprived backgrounds (and those from poor countries too).

And yet…still within the Premier League, there is a temptation to ‘pick winners’. The absurd wages and transfer fees mean a squad can cost as much as the total annual turnover at my university of 20,000 people. The biggest clubs cream off talent through sheer spending power, which has meant that only five clubs have won the Premier League title out of the 47 that have competed for it at some point since its inception in 1992. Manchester United alone has won 13 of the 24 titles since then. Spain’s La Liga is little different, with Real Madrid winning more than half the time. The two clubs are economic giants.

Leicester City are a different prospect. Their squad is made up of the footballing equivalents of cheap cuts. Jamie Vardy, the League’s leading goalscorer and now major star was previously at non-league Fleetwood Town, a veritable snip at £1 million. Riyad Mahrez, almost certainly the best player in the League on current form, cost just one third of that. When City beat Chelsea a few weeks ago, the cost of their team on the night was one tenth of that of the London club.

What is the lesson for graduate recruitment? It’s about looking for talent wherever it may be, recognising potential and creating a team. Sticking together a group of galacticos works some of the time, but equally with the right set up it is clearly possible to bring the best out of unsung players such as Drinkwater, Albrighton and Morgan. Having a fixed graduate entry point which is open only to a narrow band of institutions writes off any chance of picking the next Vardy of marketing or Kanté of accounting.

My second sporting example is the NFL. It may seem a strange choice. It is an endeavour soaked in commerce, the most capitalist of sports where owners have been known to move the team to another city entirely in search of greater profits (a fate which has just befallen the Rams, who return to Los Angeles in 2016 after years in St Louis). Games are staccato affairs, with frequent breaks and ‘timeouts’ to squeeze in more advertising. Player and coach salaries are huge.

But in other respects, NFL borders on being socialist. To begin with, there is a salary cap. Teams can spend BIG, but they can’t outspend each other. Coaches must decide whether to splash out on a few stars or spread the money around. To be successful they need to find and develop unfashionable players. The league also prevents tall poppies through the Draft. This works by giving most to those who have least: the team finishing last has the first choice of new recruits from college football; the reigning Superbowl champions are last in line to choose. Teams can recruit those not picked in the Draft (‘free agents’), some of whom go on from nowhere to be top stars.

The incongruous equality of the NFL has a strong dividend. American football is not a game to everyone’s taste, but the athletic quality on display is Olympic standard, team after team, week after week. While I’ve been watching that Vardy goal on repeat for days, it’s matched by the feats of the NFL elite. And it’s an open contest. In the 50 Superbowls played up to 2016, no team has won it more than six times, only four of the current 32 teams have never appeared in the final and no team has three consecutive wins. By regulating in this way, the NFL has prioritised the collective over the individual team and everyone has benefitted.

The lessons for graduate recruitment are clear. Equality works well and picking winners is no guarantee of success. Being more open – as universities and graduate recruiters – to late developers and to growing and nurturing, rather than just selecting talent can be highly effective. Watch out Real Madrid: Leicester City are coming for you…

[1] There isn’t really a word for people from Leicester. I don’t know why some cities seem to have nouns for their inhabitants (London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol) and others don’t (Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh etc). According to @patlockley on Twitter, people from Leicester are called ‘chissits’ in Skegness (the Lincolnshire seaside resort popular with Leicester residents). This is on account of the habit of walking into shops, picking something up and asking ‘owmuchissit?
[2] And I’ll be honest here: I’m a bit of a fairweather football fan. Rugby union is my sport of choice. On which, this article by Stacey Pope on female fans of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers highlights the social class (and city/county) connotations of the two clubs.

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Postgraduate policy, principles, pragmatism and private finance (part 1)

Postgraduate funding is increasingly regularly making the news. This week’s story featured an exasperated postgraduate applicant, Damien Shannon, who is suing St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, alleging that it has unfairly discriminated against him on grounds of wealth. As he describes in his blog for the Guardian, Mr. Shannon had an offer of a place on the MSc in Economic and Social History with strong support from the University’s economic historians. In the absence of a scholarship he planned to pay his own fees and work to support himself. However the College’s insistence that he have both the tuition fee and a full year’s maintenance in advance (reportedly £21k) ruled him out. It would rule me out too and I have a full-time professional job; so what hope is there for a new graduate unless s/he has rich and generous relatives?

It’s a troubling case and not the only example I’m aware of. It is particularly sad that the whole thing has reached the stage of litigation, which I doubt will help anyone much. I hope it leads Oxford to have a re-think and revise their requirements here, which on the maintenance front at least, seem substantially out of step with the rest of the sector, for British applicants at least.

The implications for social mobility are pretty clear. If applicants without a scholarship need close to a year’s full time median UK salary in the bank to gain admission, then it’s a scholarship or nothing for postgraduate applicants from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds (i.e. for most people, it’s nothing). Of course, postgraduate scholarships are not means tested at Oxford or anywhere else – no US-style needs-blind admissions here. What few scholarships there are could go to students who are academically able but in no financial need.

Surely, some flexibility on maintenance is required? Those aspiring masters students who can scrape together the fees and budget themselves through 12 months with savings here and a part-time job there deserve encouragement. It’s far from an ideal situation and I wouldn’t want to romanticise such self-sacrifice but it does seem perverse that evident personal enterprise and commitment to learning can be blocked through inflexible regulations. I’m sure Oxford is not wilfully trying to exclude the disadvantaged. I don’t doubt that the rules were thought up out of a concern, however wonky and paternalistic their logic may be, to avoid putting postgraduate students into hardship. The outcome might be unintended, but it plainly doesn’t help the disadvantaged (and for Oxford’s critics, there is a whiff of Jude the Obscure about it).

The underlying issue, which both sides in this case would surely agree on, is the lack of up-front student finance for taught postgraduate study. Were there access to loans for masters students, this case would not have arisen. It would be great to have increased public subsidy for postgraduate education, but right now it’s at the back of a very long queue, even within post-compulsory education. Resurrecting the Education Maintenance Allowance and AimHigher ought to have priority.

So what are the prospects for bridging the postgraduate funding gap? I will turn to those in my next post.

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Filed under Funding, Postgraduates, UK, Widening participation

Why David Willetts is not a ‘latent snob’

It is difficult not to be cynical about the Universities Minister’s recent exhortation to institutions to address the underrepresentation of white working-class boys in higher education. It may have coincided with the release of a depressing downturn in applications in the 2013 UCAS cycle, but the timing was surely no coincidence as BIS looked to deflect attention from another indication of the unfolding tragedy befalling English HE post-Browne. Timing aside though, David Willetts has a point: white working-class boys are one of the most under-represented groups among undergraduate entrants and his intervention prompted some very interesting responses. Conor Ryan of the Sutton Trust gave a summary of the research evidence in his blog and pointed out that only half as many boys as girls apply to Sutton Trust summer schools. Patrick McGhee, VC of the University of East London, outlined seven practical steps which would help improve working-class boys’ higher education participation (for all ethnic groups). I should declare an interest here – I was a white working-class boy. In case you are now thinking “well-he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he?” I also appreciated Janet Beer’s corrective which counselled of the danger in focussing on any one group (and particularly her point that women are disadvantaged in progressing to higher degrees – another topic for a future blog post).

However, for me the most interesting and thought-provoking response came from an MP I’d never heard of before: Brian Binley, vice-chair of the BIS Select Committee and the Conservative member for Northampton South. His blog on the subject is largely party-political invective against New Labour higher education policy and manages to contradict itself within the space of a paragraph. However there are two interesting things about it: it accuses Willetts of peddling an “elitist authoritarian fantasy”; and complains about a broader educational snobbery (of which Willetts is, by implication, guilty). For instance:

what these learned people need to remember is simple: there is nothing wrong with not having a degree, or opting for vocational training in place of university post-nominal distinctions

and elsewhere:

my contemporaries and I didn’t need a worthy professor shedding tears that we were able to make our way in the world without his impressive post-nominal accoutrements.

On the face of it, standard British anti-intellectual fare plus the University-of-Life trope which anyone with a degree and an aged uncle has heard at some point before. The accusation of snobbery is misplaced: if Willetts was not discussing widening participation in any way or suggesting that university is ‘not for the likes of’ some people, that would be snobbery.

But behind Binley’s complaint is a more profound point and one which my students return to again and again in discussing educational and social change and the huge rise in university enrolments over the last few decades. In the 21st century, educational qualifications have come to monopolise the path to success. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare and usually limited to particular fields – football, the odd businessperson, some of the entertainment industry. To ‘get on’ in most other areas basic educational qualifications are essential and higher education increasingly important. Young people are subject to what Alison Wolf calls “the tyranny of numbers” – not going to university is, despite the exorbitant cost, an unpalatable option. Some of those who don’t go ‘make it’, but most don’t. Many of those who do go don’t want to and/or don’t make it, but on the whole the odds are stacked in favour of the educated. In particular, making it to Westminster as an MP is increasingly a graduate’s game and so Brian Binley’s trajectory is likely to be far less common in the future.

We might have different views on whether this is a good thing or not and regret the shrivelling of non-university routes to success, with all that entails for the character of public life. That it is happening, and happening the world over though is surely a matter of fact rather than opinion. The sociologist David P. Baker has argued that modern society is a schooled society – that institutionalised education was not only a catalyst for societal transformation but that schooling (and higher education) has come to characterise the form of society we now inhabit. Generalised academic intelligence, for better or worse, has become a central measure of worth in a way analogous to the place of military prowess in medieval feudalism. It’s a polemical view, but one which I think has considerable merit. In the light of this pervasive ‘educationalisation’ of society then, the call to increase the participation of white working-class boys in higher education is not snobbery, but enlightened realpolitik.

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Filed under Higher education policy, Schooled society, UK, Widening participation