The Widening Participation debate: the sound, the fury, and the missing term

Having widening participation being debated on the Today programme can’t be a bad thing, can it? Well, maybe it depends a little on how it’s done. In fact, hearing John Humphries last Saturday harry Les Ebdon and an admissions officer from Bristol University did not, in my view, do an awful lot for the cause.

Beating up Bristol because their figures on social mix are so low is an easy game. Paradoxically, it’s equally easy for the defenders of social privilege to attack Bristol for its policy on contextual offers. (Bristol does make contextual offers, and does the research on attainment to support its policies.) My point is that this debate is more complex than attacks from one extreme or the other – proponents of social reform or social privilege – allow.

I suggest that we need to look not so much at patterns of offers and acceptances, but rather more at patterns of application. David Morris’s Wonkhe blog-post, ‘Transparency revolution: is there bias in university admissions?’, is good in this regard, demonstrating the tendency of students from certain socio-economic and ethnic groups to gravitate disproportionately to certain universities. I guess we all know this – it’s not hard to see the effects of these patterns in a walk around many campuses – but perhaps we don’t always reflect sufficiently on what it means.

One uncomfortable fact here is that the obsession with defining ‘top’ universities (John Humphries’ term on Saturday), with all its well-meaning yet clumsy snobbishness, helps to create by implication a ‘bottom’. In other words, it serves to run down the reputations of the many excellent universities that are producing high numbers of graduates from ethnic minorities and lower socio-economic groups. Might it not be helpful instead to think about the excellence of, say, Manchester Met, which takes very high numbers of such students? As long as society overlooks the achievements of such students – lazily assuming that graduates from ‘top’ univerisites belong at the top of the pile – this problem of entrenched inequality will survive.

But challenges remain nonetheless for ‘top’ (if we accept, for the sake of argument, the loose equation of ‘top’ with ‘high-tariff’) universities. And it seems to me that these challenges are not just a matter of statistics, to be solved through the calculations of contextual offer-making; they are, arguably above all else, cultural. What are the ‘top’ universities, in other words, doing to create environments in which non-standard (by their terms) students will feel sufficiently welcome to apply, and consequently fulfil their potential when they arrive? Maybe not as much as we could be doing.

I was struck, earlier this year, by three stories of bullying, at different ‘top’ universities: on grounds of racial difference, social difference, and (wait for it) a reputed association with feminist groups. That’s all anecdotal, of course, but a devastating reflection nonetheless on the state of cultural diversity on some campuses. It’s condemning non-standard students in many ‘top’ institutions to struggling daily against a feeling of difference and alienation, and stands as a key reason why many such applicants are just not bothering with the likes of us. Some students will relish the challenge of feeling like a pioneer; many won’t.

So I’d suggest that in order to change the statistics we need first to address campus cultures. There are academic aspects to that project: work at Kingston has done much to demonstrate the importance of sensitive student-support structures in addressing gaps in attainment. But there are also non-academic or semi-academic aspects: from the culture of student halls, through clubs and societies, to the look and feel of campuses. That’s a hugely complex and challenging task, but surely worth the effort.

There’s also the question, finally, of quite how much universities can be blamed for problems of inequality that can be traced back to the earliest stages of education. But I’m not going there; it’s worth raising the point simply to underline the complexity of inequality in Britain. Beating up admissions officers on national radio, on the premise that they have the power to fix things, doesn’t really do much to address these matters.

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