Access points: Why do ‘raising aspiration’ discourses persist?

Press/Media: Expert comment


Education secretary, Damian Hinds, spoke of “raising aspirations” to study at university among working-class pupils last week. But it is universities, not students, that need to step up.

For almost two decades the words “raising aspirations” have been included in educational policies, access agreements, and widening participation strategies.  Yet access to higher education remains unequal for a number of underrepresented groups, especially white, working-class boys, who are the least likely to attend university, and black students, who are underrepresented at high-status institutions.

So why do raising aspiration discourses persist? Just because they sound right. “Raising aspirations” suggests it is the student who needs to change, the student who is in deficit. The phrase serves as a smoke and mirrors parlour trick to cover up the real problem: the higher-education system itself.

Aspiration means a hope, ambition, or desire to achieve. And by this definition working-class, young people, including white, working-class boys, are aspirational. They have made that clear for years in study after study after study, including in my own research. But the aspirations many working-class, young people have for the future do not often include higher education. Why would they choose a path into higher education when they face possible discrimination and challenges simply because of their social class?

It is not the student who needs to change; it is higher education that is in deficit. Eliminating inequalities does not sound as marketable as raising aspirations. But if we want to write policies and strategies that work, that actually increase access to higher education for underrepresented groups such as white, working-class boys and black students, then it’s time to fix the system, not the student.

Make higher education less of a gamble, more of a sure thing

For many working-class students, pursuing a degree seems like a risk that is not worth taking. A number of studies have found that working-class young people are debt averse; afraid or unwilling to take on student loans. My research also shows that it may not just be the financial implications, but also the time commitment.

What might students from a working-class background expect at the end of three years of study? For one thing, they might expect to be less likely to earn a good degree than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. The class attainment gap means that, according to 2015-16 Higher Education Statistics Agency data, students from the least advantaged postcodes were 14 per cent less likely to achieve a good degree (a first or an upper second class) than their peers from the most advantaged postcodes.

The same data show that the black and minority ethnic attainment gap means that BME students were 15 per cent less likely to achieve good degrees than their peers. Working-class students and black students were also more likely to withdraw from university than their more privileged peers. If they do graduate, they might expect to face the class pay gap and/or the ethnicity pay gap when they enter the workforce.

When I have spoken to white-working class young men for my research, alternative career paths, such as apprenticeships, have often been discussed as less risky choices than higher education. It’s not just about the student’s own perception. Other influential people may suggest that higher education is a risk that is not worth taking.

Take this response in a focus group I conducted.

Participant: “Throughout my entire life I’ve been told, ‘Don’t get a degree, don’t go get a degree. It’s a lot of debt. You don’t need that debt. Don’t get a degree.’”

Researcher: “From whom?”

Participant: “My parents, teachers at school, teachers at college.”

Is that fear of debt really unfounded? Or might it be based on a sound, logical assessment of what the future might hold after working-class students complete their degrees? Higher education needs to close the gaps that working-class students might face and ensure that their future is brighter at the end of three years of study than it would have been had they not attended.

Focus on strategies that work

For white, working-class boys—the group least likely to attend university—increasing their interest in higher education and their likelihood of pursuing a university degree requires earlier interventions. In her research on white-working class boys, Louise Higham, director of the AImHigher consultancy, found that higher-education outreach activities during and before Key Stage Three (the school years for 11 to 14-year-olds) can be vital for influencing the decisions they later make about whether or not to pursue a degree.

My research also suggests that earlier interventions may be critical in determining a working-class student’s likelihood of seeing university as an option for the future. Findings by Eliza Kozman, PhD student at University College London and member of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team, show the positive impact that role models can have on white, working-class boys in increasing their interest in going to university.

All three of our studies suggest that outreach strategies should be tailored to meet the diverse needs of different underrepresented groups. A one-size-fits-all approach to outreach and recruitment is inadequate. White, working-class, male students are not a homogeneous group and recruitment strategies should be enhanced to reflect that.

The sooner we can assure a young person that higher education is a path that will lead to a better future and the earlier he knows that he is just as capable and as smart as his more advantaged peers, then the more likely he will be to take a seat in our university classrooms.

As a first-generation student from a working-class family, raised by a single mother, I am deeply committed to addressing inequalities in higher education. I am especially focused on widening access to higher education for underrepresented students, and, as the headlines make clear, white, working-class boys are the group least likely to find themselves in a university classroom.

But support for underrepresented students is not finite and does not need to be divided. All inequalities faced by students need to be remedied. A more equal higher-education system will benefit everyone.  

Period10 Oct 2018

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