Lifelong learning and social mobility in Europe – a blank page?


One of the European Commission’s agencies has just published a very interesting and informative report on social mobility in the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has drawn on existing studies and surveys to provide an overview and comparison of the EU member states. It finds that European societies have generally converged in this area, with marked changes in gender patterns; it also suggests that recent trends in social mobility vary considerably by country and gender.

New Picture (2)

I found this a valuable contribution, and as you would expect with a state agency it concludes with a series of policy recommendations. It rightly calls for further research to help shed light on national differences in recent trends, as well as for further debate over which indicators might best help us understand patterns of social mobility.

Its call to prioritise men in Generation X is likely to be controversial, but is based on evidence showing decreasing life chances among men born after 1964. It identifies early selection in education and residential segregation as major causes of  social closure, issues of particular concern in the UK.

This is all well and good. But I was shocked to see that lifelong education appears precisely twice in the report, both times in respect of policies for opening up labour market opportunities. There is no mention of evidence on the social mobility benefits of family learning or adult retraining or second-chance entry to higher education. Some of the findings around family learning interventions were summarised in our recent report for the UK Government’s Foresight project on the future of skills and lifelong learning, so it isn’t exactly inaccessible.

I suspect that the authors of the Eurofound study – and their distinguished advisory panel – simply didn’t see lifelong learning as much of an issue. They should have done, but I also think we can and should do much more to make sure that the benefits of adult learning are much more widely acknowledged. In this case, “we” comprises both the adult learning research community and the large number of reflective practitioners in our field, both of whom need to engage much more systematically with (a) policy-makers and (b) researchers in cognate disciplines. Insularity does none of us any favours.


Gender and social capital: are social networks a mixed blessing for women?


Having a decent social network is usually a really good thing, both for you and for the communities to which you belong. Conversely, loneliness and isolation can be seriously harmful to your health and well-being, as well as damaging to your communities’ attempts to cooperate.

In revising my introductory textbook for its latest edition I concluded that the literature on the health benefits of social capital is now well-established and reasonably conclusive. However, as I also emphasised, different forms of social capital can have different consequences for different parts of the population. And just as the book went to press, along came a new study which made this point nicely.

The study was led by Sara Ferlander, from the Stockholm Centre for Health and Social Change, and drew on data collected in the Moscow Health Survey. You can read their paper, which is available on open access here. I will therefore focus in this post on the findings that particularly interested me.

First, as with a number of other studies, the survey found that women were more likely than men to report that they suffer from depression. They were also more likely to say that they suffer from severe depression. The authors then used a statistical technique called regression analysis to try to determine how other factors, including social networks, were connected to depression; they found that while education and age showed little connection, money problems and depression did go together.

Other studies, summarised in my book, have shown that social networks generally help act as a buffer against depression. The reasons might seem obvious: having someone to turn to in times of trouble isn’t just a way of overcoming practical problems, but is also reassuring to your sense of self and worth to others. But Moscow survey findings show a degree of complexity.

Women who were divorced or widowed, all other things being even, had higher odds of reporting depression. This is broadly what social capital theory leads us to expect, and the Ferlander team concluded that this form of social capital has particular importance for women.

More unexpectedly, the study found no association for either men or women between self-reported depression and either membership of voluntary groups or contacts with friends. And for women, it found that those with fewer age-bridging connections were less likely to report depression than those whose social ties were richer in age-diverse connections. The researchers suggest that this might be explained partly by sharp inter-generational tensions in Russian society and gender discrimination in the workplace.

The obvious question is whether we would find similar patterns elsewhere. Given Russia’s particular social and economic history, it’s likely that there are distinctive factors at work in the well-being of both women and men. Nevertheless, this study nicely illustrates the ways in which social capital somtimes works differently for women and men, and I wish I’d had access to it before the book went to press!


Protesting an honorary degree for Judith Butler

The poster for Butler's lecture (copyright

The poster for Butler’s lecture (copyright

Judith Butler is a well-known American scholar and political activist. Her work on gender and sexuality is widely cited, and her book Gender Trouble was something of a best-seller. She has influenced scholars in a number of disciplines beyond feminist and queer theory and cultural studies, and is well known in educational studies. Her work on the gendered body has been taken as a sharp tool for understanding educational identities and purposes. Researchers in adult learning citing her work include Barbara Merrill, Valerie-Lee Chapman and André Grace.

Given Butler’s fame and standing, I was slightly surprised to discover that the Anglophone media had ignored the kerfuffle over her recent honorary doctorate. The University of Freiburg/Fribourg awarded Butler her degree on the recommendation of its philosophy department, and the Berkeley scholar duly collected her award. But she did so amidst a storm of fury from conservative Catholics, objecting to her views on family life and gender construction.

Butler’s formal lecture (on non-violence) was given with security guards at the doors, while some thirty Catholics audibly protested outside with hymns and candles. The university’s professor of dogmatic theology (let me know if you come up with a better translation of ‘Professor für dogmatische Theologie’) announced that he disapproved of the honorary degree and was boycotting the lecture.

This was relatively a small and generally polite protest. The lecture hall was full, and the only anger was apparently shown by latecomers who were refused entry. An alternative event, with mulled wine and bible readings, attracted a negligible audience. Meanwhile, the university’s rector received dozens of angry emails, and the local Bishop was urged to withhold his usual mass during the University’s ‘Dies academicus’.

Butler is, of course, no stranger to controversy. She has been particularly criticised for her views on Israel and once won fourth prize in a competition for bad writing. I haven’t heard of religious fundamentalists taking any particular exception to her previously, though I can see that her views on the social construction of gender might offend those who believe that the two genders were made by God. So I found it rather odd that the national broadcaster quoted Barbara Hallensleben, professor of theology at Freiburg/Fribourg, as saying that Butler’s view of gender was consistent with creationism.

Given that the controversy passed off safely, I would imagine that Butler rather relished the whole experience. It’s only slightly surprising that it wasn’t picked up by at least some specialist journalists in the Anglophone media; I only came across the episode because I was working in Hamburg and saw it reported very briefly in the press. Academic fame can impress insiders like me, for better or for worse, but out there it remains a very small niche.

Gender and university governance

Last week’s blog discussed the low proportion of women who sit on the governing bodies of Scotland’s universities. Over the weekend, I looked at governing boards in universities in London and Yorkshire. The good news is that things are better in these two regions. The bad news is that they aren’t all that much better.

Women governors form 30% of the total in London universities, and 34% in Yorkshire. At two universities – Leeds Met and Sheffield Hallam – there are more women governors than men. By comparison, women comprise 28% of board members in Scotland.

Six of the 26 London boards are chaired by women and three of the 11 Yorkshire boards. These women chairs include Estelle Morris at Goldsmiths and retired spook Dame Manningham-Buller at Imperial, while Jenny Abramski chairs the trustees of the University of London. Scotland has no women chairs.

I imagine that I don’t need to bang on about this. Clearly, governing bodies in London and Yorkshire are still largely male zones. They do show, though, that women are willing to join and chair governing boards, where they no doubt do as good a job as men. They also suggest that the position in Scotland is inexcusable.

This brings me neatly to a sort of postscript. If you remember, Universities Scotland claimed last week that ‘many universities have an equal gender balance amongst their co-opted members’. I emailed them last week to ask for clarification, without success. Perhaps they were referring to universities in Yorkshire.


Correction Universities Scotland contacted me this week to say that they had not received last week’s email. It turns out that I used an incorrect address. They have promised to get back to me once they have checked the information they relied on for their statement.

Can women be trusted to govern higher education?

A battle is under way over who is to control Scotland’s universities. The Scottish Government is legislating on the future shape of the post-16 education system. The legislation is wide-ranging, but includes proposals for greater political involvement in the appointment of university governing bodies.  Mike Russell, for the government, is very keen on this idea; the universities are lobbying ferociously against it.

Enter the National Union of Students, who yesterday released a statement condemning the gender imbalance of existing university governing bodies. Based on 2011/12 figures, the NUS claimed that just 25% of board members are women. These figures were duly reported in the Herald on the day that Mike Russell was called to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, where he said agreed that the figures justified the powers that he has proposed for himself, and even floated the idea of a new amendment allowing him to intervene in order to secure a gender balance.

The first thing I want to say is that the NUS has every right to present these figures, however inconvenient they may be for the universities. University governing bodies are often seen as ceremonial bodies with little real power, but this is only partly right. Governing bodies (usually known as the ‘court’) are increasingly flexing their muscles over their formal role, which is to approve and review the institution’s strategic goals and direction; they can be key allies for particular groups of senior staff; and above all they appoint the principal and can hold him or her to account.

And it is the chairs of university courts who have been meeting Mike Russell, and reportedly annoying him not only by opposing his new Bill, but by the way in which they do it. If the governing bodies do matter, then so does their membership. I checked the NUS data, using more up-to-date membership lists where possible, excluding small specialist colleges, and disregarding university principals (most of whom are male, but that is another issue) who are present ex officio.

Women account for 28% of current members of university governing bodies (usually known as ‘the court’). Men are a majority of all university governing bodies, ranging from 55% at Dundee to an overwhelming 85% at University of the Highlands and Islands. All university governing bodies are chaired by men.  And this is in a system where the majority of students and of staff are female.

It isn’t difficult to see how this situation has come about. University courts are very different bodies, depending on the history of the institution, but all share some common features. They all include a group who are co-opted by existing governors; though some universities advertise such posts, more usually this is a closed process. I found that 74% of those listed in this category were men.

Co-opted representatives usually come from the world of business and public life. Most of the former group are men; one university has a number of co-opted male governors from the dominant (private) industry, and a smaller group of female co-optees who come mostly from quangos and the service sector.

The Herald quoted Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland as claiming that ‘many universities have an equal gender balance amongst their co-opted members’. On my figures, this is so in only one university – Strathclyde – out of fifteen. I have invited him to clarify or correct his claim. No university court has a majority of female co-optees.

Then there are those who sit on court by virtue of some office they hold. These include the main student association officers. They often include representatives of local councils, and in the ancient universities they include Kirk ministers, student-elected rectors, and a few other remainders from past times. The universities have no control over these groups, but they are relatively small in number.

And there are staff representatives: 60% of the governors elected by a predominantly female staff electorate are men. When I was a deputy principal, I well remember discussions in which the principal and chair of court (both then female) lamented the difficulty of getting women academics onto court. Was this because they were unwilling to stand for election (we thought so) – and if so, why?

It should go without saying that the current situation is unacceptable. I can understand some of the problems. Women are a minority in public life. Mike Russell knows this, not least from his experience in the Scottish Government: the First Minister is male, as are five out of seven Cabinet Secretaries and eight out of thirteen Ministers. Wherever we look in public life, we see stark and alarming examples of inequality.

But I expect better of university courts. They could have overcome this and other challenges if they had chosen to do so – and they did not. And if inequality is wrong in principle, it may also turn out to have been remarkably stupid. MSPs have already called governors ‘an old boys’ club’. This is a whiskery old cliché, of course, but the label is likely to stick. It won’t help the sector feel good about itself, and it damages our reputation in the wider world. And it has handed over a weapon to a Minister who has often been described as a ruthless centraliser.

Andrew Denholm’s article in today’s Herald is at: