Opinion: University attitudes must change

Education can help improve social equality, says Alison Wride – but only if the universities radically change their approach to recruiting and teaching students

By Alison Wride

24 Jun 2014

If education is really the key to social equality, then we need to take a long hard look at our system – and in particular our approach to higher education (HE).

There has tended to be a clear separation between the roles of primary and secondary education and that of HE. Schooling provides the solid basis for all, ensuring we have a literate and numerate workforce with the baseline skills every worker needs. This can be supplemented by additional support to give every child the opportunity to achieve their potential. But when it comes to HE, the difference in approach is stark. Going to a university and getting a degree qualification is seen as the goal, not a way to provide opportunities.

This is why ‘Widening Participation’ (WP) activities – though carried out effectively and with real commitment by many universities – still fit so awkwardly with the culture of HE. The rewards simply aren’t there for universities. Indeed, taking on students through WP can be seen as detrimental to league table positions. For most institutions, the imperative is to recruit those with the highest grades. As a result of this focus on traditional high-achievers, many parts of the HE sector have remained unchanged in terms of the experience offered. The format of the offering, the curricula and delivery are all designed to suit its traditional customers, and institutions show little inclination for change.

Many people from disadvantaged or minority ethnic backgrounds find university disconcerting – not because of the work involved or the fact they’re in a minority, but because the environment and culture is focused on moulding them into a traditional template based on the culture, the attitudes and behaviours of white, middle-class graduates.

The response may be: does it matter? We have a high-quality system that rewards academic excellence. But to what end? Surely one aim of education is to identify, foster and develop excellence that is initially hidden, not simply to recognise those whose background or education best prepares them to demonstrate it. It is this aspect of HE which will support economic growth and make society wealthier. This role may mean that the sector needs to change, to adapt to the changes that UK society has undergone in the last 50 years.

A recent report by the University Alliance has highlighted some of the issues around HE’s role in our country’s lack of social mobility, pointing to the current focus on getting disadvantaged young people into ‘elite’ universities and top professional jobs. The system tends to push young people in the direction of traditional ‘high-status’ careers, and 2013 research by the National Careers Council found that a third of teenagers want to do just 10 highly competitive jobs, such as doctor, teacher or lawyer. Yet some of the least ‘popular’ jobs – such as surveyor or welder – pay an above-average wage and offer strong opportunities for progress.

Employers know that to innovate and develop they need different perspectives and a diverse workforce. Many are starting to realise that an annual intake of conventional graduates isn’t going to help. They want staff that better match their customers and clients – and universities are failing to supply them. This may be one reason why the traditional graduate employers like PwC and Lloyds/TSB are pursuing higher apprenticeship schemes.

More HE institutions should be celebrating diversity, putting WP closer to the centre of what they do, rather than treating it like a CSR programme. Non-traditional students have experiences, energy and enterprise that can bring a great deal to universities, the environment and experience of everyone involved – both staff and fellow students. We need a sector that can support greater choice, more opportunities, and a challenge to the monoculture of the status quo.

Despite the potential for education to support social mobility, equality and social cohesion, the approaches continue to be piecemeal and uncoordinated. A national strategy is needed to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds through to HE and, better still, to equip them to be independent and to compete in jobs markets and as entrepreneurs. And this isn’t just about young people: there has to be more than one chance to get somewhere up the educational ladder.

Like any other sector receiving taxpayer support, HE needs to be able to justify every pound of investment. My argument can be viewed as a simple matter of efficiency or one based around equality, but the conclusion is the same. HE needs to demonstrate value, both to employers and in addressing the widening gap in wealth and opportunity, and that means moving to a culture that actively supports a diverse student body.

Professor Alison Wride is the provost of GSM London​ - an independent school of higher education.

To find out more, go to www.gsm.org.uk

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