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.

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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.

 

Confessions of a grammar school boy

The current debate in England over school selection at 11 is an important one. The outcome will affect the shape of English society, and not just its secondary school system, for decades to come. I find the debate parochial (the German Länder, for example, offer a natural experiment in early secondary selection: some have comprehensive systems, others have teacher-based selection at 10, but unlike Britain all share a strong vocational pathway).

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Sturry Secondary Modern – image by Artcyprus, from Wikipedia

Part of that parochialism is a tendency for individuals to tell their own stories, which of course prove little. My own experiences were even less typical than  most: my father was a professional soldier, so my primary and pre-school education was peripatetic, and my parents decided to send me to the boarding section of a  grammar school.

I found it a brutal place, at least in my first years. By the third year I was too large to bully physically without risk; verbal cruelty was less risky. Bullying was not only rife, but was built into the school’s discipline structure, and complaining about the prefects would have been (a) pointless and (b) taken as a sign of weakness.Teachers regularly used public humilation as a way of controlling their adolescent charges.

Later on, reading William Horwood’s autobiography (he attended the same school four years ahead of me), I discovered that this culture of cruelty aruled among the day pupils as well. I don’t know why that came as a surprise, and I should have known, but I’d assumed that the boarders – most of whom had parents in the armed forces or expatriate professions – were unique. While I hope I didn’t bully others, I fear that at least once I did.

Academically I thrived into the fifth year, when I passed 10 O-Levels (11 if you include General Studies), then lost interest in the sixth year, passing two A-levels. I loved many of the extra-curricular activities, particularly rugby, the chess club, the debating society. As a person I learned to hide pain and defend myself verbally and physically. I also got up to the usual adolescent male stuff: making good friends, listening to records, puzzling over women (the school later became co-ed), stretching the school’s dress code.

Ah, that dress code. We were banned from wearing CND badges, so we all got one and wore it behind our blazer lapel. As a result I started to question other aspects of ‘normality’, and became a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, and briefly joined Peter Hain’s Young Liberals. And I learned to despise and fear boys who went to the secondary modern down the road.

I feared them because we heard stories of secondary boys setting upon our fellow pupils, highly visible as we all were thanks to the school dress code. We despised them of course, because they were ‘thick’ and had failed their 11+ exam, because they played different (inferior) sports, because their school buildings were tatty, and because they were and would remain ‘proles’ for all their days. Not quite Oxbridge levels of contempt, but contempt all the same, which took a few years of working life to erase.

Most of today’s debate focuses on whether grammar schools are a good thing. We tend to forget that grammar schools are for a minority, and that their introduction means that the majority will go to non-grammars. Or, as they used to be known, secondary moderns. Arguing for grammar schools inextricably means arguing also for secondary moderns, and we need to face up to what that means.

My top books of 2016

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By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.

My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.

Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.

Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.

What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.

I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.

While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.

From the Times Higher Education, 23 December 2016

Student mobility and social inequalities

We’ve known for a number of years that international student mobility programmes tend to increase social inequalities. One recent analysis of patterns of study abroad reasonably concluded that while a number of factors are at work, including sometimes strongly held parental ideas, there is no doubting the importance of access to financial, cultural and social capital. And the same study shows that a period of study abroad has a measurable and positive impact on life chances.

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Infographic from Campus France

I was reminded of this research recently by seeing a French infographic on Twitter. Reporting a survey of outwardly mobile students from France, the authors noted that international student mobility continues to be a key social marker, in terms of outcomes as well as participation.

In terms of participation, the authors found much higher levels of parental support among students from wealthier families, particularly where the parents themselves had gone to university.They didn’t even ask about ethnicity, disability or mature age study.

There was also more institutional encouragement and support in the elite institutions, with the least encouragement being reported by students in health studies. Language was a challenge: as English has become the global language of academic study, so it becomes more important to have studied in an environment where you can develop your English language skills. Finally, money was also an issue, with study abroad costing an average of €6,000 for a six month stay.

What this effectively means is that study abroad programmes such as Erasmus are selectively subsidising the most affluent and advantaged of the student population. Furthermore, the students who have participated in study abroad programmes then get a head start in competing for cosmopolitan positions, which reinforces their privileged position. The net contribution to social mobility is therefore negative.

Researchers have known about the regressive effects of mobility programmes for some time, and have drawn them to the attention of policy makers, who have done precisely nothing to change the situation. Europe’s education policy makers and university leaders alike view Erasmus and similar programmes as a great success, and take every opportunity to say so. This latest French study adds to a body of evidence which ought to make us all ask a few hard questions about what values these programmes represent, and what aims they should be seeking to serve.

 

Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

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Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.

Cracking the class ceiling: where next for Scotland?

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From the chair’s foreword

The Commission on Widening Access has just published its final report. You can read a copy here. Chaired by Ruth Silver, a highly respected former college principal who has considerable experience in adult and further education, the Commission listed 34 recommendations, which it describes as adding up to “a system wide plan to achieve equal access within a generation”.

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Dame Ruth Silver

Overall, I’d say that the Commission’s recommendations are as ambitious as this overall aim suggests. It focuses particularly on the massive socio-economic inequalities that characterise higher education participation in Scotland (I’m assuming I don’t need to dwell on the inequalities in other countries). It starts by calling on the Scottish Government to appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access, whose remit will among other things include responsibility for a ‘more substantial evidence base’ than exists at present.

This sounds to me as though the Commission thinks that OFFA (the Office for Fair Access) has on the whole worked well as an advocate for promoting wider access in England, though for tactical reasons this may be something to mutter quietly north of the border. However, the proposed Scottish Commissioner would have greater powers to work with schools and other pre-16 providers than OFFA, allowing a sharper strategic focus and helping avoid suplication.

The Commission also tackles one of the great challenges in ensuring equity in Scottish higher education: the problem of articulation. In its interim report, the Commission praised the expansion of higher education provision in colleges as a sunstantial contribution to wider access. The problem comes when students try to transfer from a college to university: the Commission estimate that 84% of transfers involved only five universities, with the most selective universities admitting few students and recognising less credit.

This is a problem of long standing, and it is a significant block on social mobility. I was delighted to see a strongly-worded recommendation, urging the Scottish Funding Council to “seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players”.

It also makes a number of recommendations about admissions criteria and procedures that will be widely welcomed by advocates of wider access, but will be less popular among academics and managers in the more selective universities. In a move that will provoke horror from some senior managers, the Commission proposes that the SFC should make more use of existing regulatory powers to drive wider access, and urges the Scottish Government to publish data on fair access.

The Commission also recognised that the stratified nature of Scottish higher education has consequences for graduate destinations. Essentially, those who enter the most selective forms of higher education are far the most likely to enter elite professions; those who complete short cyle higher education in a non-university context are the least likely. The report also notes that the least advantaged students are also less likely, on average, to complete their qualification.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Commission was unable to consider inequalities in outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in any depth. Its final recommendation invites the new Commissioner to “consider what futher work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience”.

My initial reaction, then, is that the Commission has done a pretty decent job. I have some reservations about key gaps – for example, the lack of explicit attention to ethnicity and gender. The remit – as you can see above – was narrowly focussed on children’s life chances, with no acknowledgement of second chance learners. But on the whole, I think Ruth Silver and her colleagues have delivered an important and challenging agenda for equity and mobility in Scotland, in a report that should be of interest way beyond our borders.

What will happen next is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government. Angela Constance, the minister responsible for education and lifelong learning, has broadly welcomed the report (while patting herself and her Government on the back, both for their past achievments, and for appointing the Commission in the first place). Her official statement concluded with the following sentence:

I am very grateful to Dame Ruth Silver and the Commissioners for the considerable time, effort and engagement they have put into producing this ’Blueprint for Fairness’. Their recommendations are bold and thoughtful and fit well with ongoing work around closing the attainment gap and developing the young workforce.

This reads to me as though adult learning still has no part to play in the Scottish Government’s strategy for wider access, which is disappointing, if not very surprising. But the Scottish Government has already faced down the more conservative-minded leaders in the higher education sector in demanding reforms to governance, so I am hopeful that they will go at least some way to tackling the social class inequalities and injustice that this report has highlighted. And if you want to monitor developments, you could do much worse than follow the well-informed and analytical blog of Lucy Hunter Blackburn, here.

 

 

Top of the League Tables: the Social Mobility Index

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

I sometimes think that what higher education really needs is a league table of higher education league tables. No, not really – but here is one league table that I would actually find useful: the Social Mobility Index sets out to identify which universities best serve the public interest. And the results are predictablly intriguing.

Basically, the Index measures performance against five criteria:

  1. the level of tuition fees, with the lowest fees being ranked highest;
  2. the socio-economic background of the students;
  3. the graduation rate, which effectively includes retention and success;
  4. the average early career salary of graduates;
  5. income from endowments, which like tuition fees are measured negatively, on the grounds that a university which does something without endowment income is likely to be more efficient than one which does the same but with high endowment income.

These seem pretty reasonable criteria, and they can be measured fairly robustly.The Index seems to me to combine effectiveness measures with indicators of equity and student success. You won’t be surprised that I am quite keen to persuade someone like Phil Baty and the Times Higher to undertake a similar exercise in the UK, where similar data are readily available.

Indeed, with a pinch a suitably powerful government body (such as the European Commission) could probably collect such information for the whole of Europe. I wonder which universities would do well, and which would do badly, in a European Social Mobility League Table?

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In the USA, which is what the current table covers, there is one clear winner. City University New York and its constituent colleges dominate the top position. What a great track record: best in the USA at taking disadvantaged students, ensuring they succeed, getting them valued in the labour market, and doing all this with low fees and low endowment. Yes, this is a league table I’d love to see replicated more widely.