Higher, wider, further, deeper, oops….


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.

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3 responses to “Higher, wider, further, deeper, oops….

  1. Perhaps the changes being brought about by the Clementi review of the legal profession will engender a different approach to the legal profession. Instead of the emphasis on “profession” with its innate stuffiness, there might be a move towards the law as occupation making it more “normal” and therefore less exclusive. But, I suspect, this will be a long time coming. And if it comes the types of jobs available will be very different from those that are the norm now. With inclusion will come less exclusiveness and more, to use a quaint term, proletarianization. John

  2. Interesting point, as ever, John. Initiatives like Clementi are certainly going to be important. But I’m not sure that the effects are particularly predictable. I think we will see a greater variety of service providers with the move to alternative business structures and ‘Tesco law’. The question is – particularly in the shorter term – whether this will in any way encourage the ‘trad’ legal profession to become more socially diverse, or whether it may rather generate an expansion/creation of new para-professional roles in the legal services market? In the latter case couldn’t marketisation could actually increase rather than decrease ‘class’ (another quaint term!)distinctions within and between those occupations?

  3. Yes, marketization will have an effect, but not because law firms see something inherently good in diversity. The impetus will come from major corporate and government clients saying unless you can demonstrate that you practise diversity, we won’t give you work. It will be a form of imposed affirmative action. Already in the US if corporations want government contracts they must show that they are committed to diversity and have policies in place, all of which have to be demonstrated in practical terms. This gets shifted up the supply chain.

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