So, Higher Education minister Bill Rammell is prepared to admit that, six years on, the success of government widening participation strategy has been less than spectacular. OK, I admit he didn’t go that far, preferring to blame the “scatter gun” approach of Aimhigher instead, (he would wouldn’t he?) but come on, a little reading between the lines is surely permissible. The news from the Higher Education Careers Service Unit that a young person is twice as likely to attend university if they have graduate parents is also less than surprising (both items reported in The Guardian Education section 12.06.07) . I draw attention to this not because I’m against widening participation (on the contrary it was one of the reasons I hung on in the polytechnic/new university sector for 20-odd years), but I do think it is a particularly intractable problem for HE institutions to deal with. The middle class ‘parentocracy’ still win the game for all the obvious reasons – a history of family expectation that normalises a university education, the economic and cultural capital to exploit school and university admissions systems, better access to information, etc, etc, and, if all else fails, the inclination to shout loudly to the Daily Mail whenever they become aware of any university admission policies that could possibly be conceived of as positive action, let alone discrimination.
The problem, of course, is that the solutions are (as we all – including Government – know) much harder and more expensive to achieve than slapping a target of 50% age participation on HE. Effective outreach programmes, summer schools, strategies to target talented and gifted kids, and embedding really effective advice and guidance in secondary schools and communities are massively time and resource intensive activities. Particularly in a context where resources are already scarce, and teachers are often struggling to deal with an overloaded and frequently changing curriculum. To be sure the government has targeted money on WP initiatives, but the data suggest we are still swimming against a tide of relative ignorance and indifference in many communities.
Perhaps even more critically, if widening participation strategies are going to make a material difference beyond university, schools, universities and employers also need to think very seriously about the steps they should be taking to prepare non-traditional students for the graduate workplace. One of the problems we continue to see in the legal profession is the tendency for employers to recruit, on the basis of their social and cultural capital, ‘people like us’. Given the relational nature of much legal work, these shared cultural values and assumptions often ‘oil the wheels’ in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace, but they also act as a powerful exclusionary tool in recruitment processes. The situation is improving, slowly. But my sense is that widening participation strategies need to focus more on what can be done both to develop some of that cultural capital, and to co-opt employers into delivering a much stronger pull effect, to support the push that the education sector is already working hard to provide.