social mobility

Becoming A Masterful Graduate: Class, Strategy and Playing ‘The Game’

Becoming A Masterful Graduate: Class, Strategy and Playing 'The Game'

“They have nobody to blame but themselves.”
“If they don’t put in the work, they don’t deserve to get anywhere.”

Comments like these assume that people have a great strategy worked out and simply choose not to bother using it.

These comments also assume that mistakes were made on a level playing field. The only possible reason for underachievement must be laziness and lack of trying. Fault is made to look totally one-sided.

It’s true that you should take responsibility for your actions. But life doesn’t operate on a constant, level playing field. Comparisons are rarely helpful.

Taking personal responsibility isn’t the one difference between success and lack of it. Matters out of your current field of vision and understanding can limit your mindset, even when you are (unknowingly) capable.


When something is out of your current field of vision, it’s time to get strategic.

At school, I jumped through hoops without understanding why. It was only when I realised I could be acting more fruitfully, MUCH more fruitfully, that I crafted a different path. I had made my initial UCAS application for all the wrong reasons and had focused in areas that would not have suited me.

In fact, at that time, university of any kind wouldn’t have suited me. I needed to make a leap. And it took a whole new set of experiences to show me the way.

I’m so thankful that so much changed in the incredible year between leaving Sixth Form and going to university. That in-between year still involved a lot of Sixth Form and university. But I managed, luckily, to change the game.

‘The game’ is all about strategy. Ciaran Burke’s new book, Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures: Degrees of Class, explores the problematic relationships between social class and graduate achievement.

Through a series of graduate interviews, Burke found that future career strategies are heavily impacted by early social and class experiences. He explains that individuals tend to feel in control of their destiny, yet appear to follow certain patterns depending on their class grouping.

Burke states:

“A common theme within much social policy, pertaining to social mobility, is individual responsibility…Social mobility policy needs to approach the issue more holistically, considering inequalities between groups rather than seeing it as a working-class problem; as Payne (2012) comments, low social mobility should not be understood solely as the working class failing to enter the middle class but the middle class, effectively, keeping them out.”

These issues, Burke argues, are not properly addressed in policy, which has led to “contradictions and limitations within policy narratives“. His work describes the need for widening participation and social mobility to be discussed with a more sociological approach. He suggests that some documents, such as Alan Milburn’s Unleashing Aspiration, come close, but “do not make the leap”.

Jo Johnson’s recent speech as minister for universities and science included the commitment to double the entry rate of those from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, compared to 2009 levels. However, greater access to university is just the start. Johnson also explained that UCAS will publish data and analysis regarding protected and disadvantaged groups. While this information will be useful in assessing applications, Burke’s findings appear to suggest that widening participation does not turn into social mobility and a guarantee of increased success off the back of securing a degree. Other strategies that must be uncovered to help these students, once they graduate, to understand not only what is within their grasp, but also how to firmly grasp it.

In a Times Higher Education review of Burke’s book, Huw Morris concludes:

What Burke’s book reveals to this reviewer is, first, the need to help young people and their families gain a better understanding of “the game” of graduate social mobility, and, second, the part that employers could play in rewriting the rules of a process that is becoming more costly and less like a game.

Better understanding of ‘the game’ is needed in order to improve the “field of the possibles” because Burke states that there is a “cap limiting what the working-class respondents understand themselves to be capable of achieving“.

Blinkered to the 'field of the possibles' can limit capability.

Being blinkered to the ‘field of the possibles’ can limit capability.

To overcome artificial limits, therefore, greater emphasis is needed on improving strategy.

For instance, Burke states that working-class students believe that an institution’s reputation “will increase their chances of securing graduate employment“. But middle-class students are playing the game differently: “The middle-class graduates understand the situation and read for their degree based on the merits of the individual course; they appreciate it is that course that will increase their ability to find a graduate job, not the presumed institutional capital.

I believe strategy goes far beyond the merits of a course too. University isn’t about a course, it’s not about grades, it’s not about social life, it’s not about engaging in seminars, it’s not about joining societies, it’s not about making friends, it’s not about writing essays, and it’s not about learning to be independent.

University is about all these things.

And so much more than that.

I see three big-picture terms within the strategy:

  1. Mastery – Move beyond learning the minimum. Basic expectations are there to be surpassed, not followed on the dot.
  2. Narrative – Explaining what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and where you’re going. Describing how you’ve mastered pertinent skills and why it matters. Signalling your achievements so they make sense to those who need to know.
  3. Self-imposed limits – Not self-imposed beliefs, but a conscious decision to focus on a small number of concentrated areas. It’s a cycle, because these self-imposed limits help you to achieve mastery and to form a narrative that’s exciting and makes sense.

As you develop your strategy, it becomes easier to take action. And once you take action, bit by bit, you discover more. You learn new things that you thought would remain a mystery your entire life. Discoveries that go way beyond your degree.

It could be how to play the instrument that you always wanted to enjoy. Or how to organise your life without breaking into a sweat…How to network like a champion…How to start a movement…How to work with others.

Social mobility goes beyond getting a degree. Access to university is one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Even if access to higher education never was an issue, it doesn’t help to simply feel entitled, as Burke explains in his book. To be the student you deserve to be, assumptions–both humble and grand–only serve to get in the way. As with coursework, there are no marks for assuming without putting in the research and experimentation.

The playing field isn’t level. That’s why strategy is so important. When I realised this, it changed my perception. Not only did more seem possible, but the work involved also felt less of an uphill struggle.

You’ve probably heard people say that because they were able to achieve a certain goal, it follows that anyone could achieve it. “If *I* can do it, anyone can!”

While there may be some truth in that, it’s too simplistic to see that as sufficient proof and motivation to guarantee success. More work must be done on developing strategic mindsets. More people need to be aware that they’re playing the game. When that’s apparent, people will also have a more conscious choice over how they wish to play it.


Upfront fees, perks for the rich, and the social mobility problem

Got cash? Feeling flush? Pay your money up front and enjoy the university YOU want to attend.

photo by alancleaver_2000

photo by alancleaver_2000

David Willetts, Minister for Universities & Science, is looking at proposals that allow rich students (or rich parents) to pay higher fees up front to attend university. These places would be ‘off quota’, so they would not change numbers going through standard channels of application.

But Willetts’ argument is facing a backlash from the outset. Willetts suggests that social mobility will improve because there will end up being more places available to students who cannot afford to pay straight up.

While the proposals have not yet been agreed and details are yet to be finalised, that hasn’t stopped negative opinion from emerging. Twitter has been awash with it this morning. By example, two major complaints of the idea are:

  1. Rich people will be able to choose the institution they wish to attend, thus making some universities more elitist;
  2. To cite social mobility is upsetting for many who simply see this move as an opportunity for rich people to buy a place while a standard student doesn’t have this guarantee.

Today’s report in The Guardian highlights the complexities and potential problems, but also the possible benefits from the new ideas under discussion.

There is no answer to what’s under discussion, because no detail has been agreed. On top of this, we’re already facing massive changes in terms of fees and funding both for students and for universities. This new proposal is yet another alteration that adds to the confusion. It’s almost impossible to find a solid base to work from to help higher education or students at the moment.

Entry requirements are set to be the same for those looking to pay more, yet there is still much chatter on Twitter of buying places without the grades. Willetts said on Radio 4 that this type of practice is not under proposal.

If entry grades are, therefore, set to be the same as standard places, what benefits would someone paying up front have?

  1. Practically guaranteed place to the institution you choose to pay for (because it’s not a place under quota);
  2. Money paid now means there is no need to think about loans and paying off in the future.

The first point is much more powerful than the second. Rather than worry about an oversubscribed institution, one payment after you get the grades is all you need to go where you want.

Yes, it’s a perk. Yes, entry is based on wealth (after grade requirements have been met). But that doesn’t mean it cannot be used positively. The detail needs to be careful so as not to create an elitist normality. Additionally, much of the cash should be redistributed to help less affluent applicants and the like. In no way should this be seen solely as a money-making exercise for institutions, even if institutions require more cash. Balancing the books this way would set a dangerous precedent.

Unfortunately, discussion has been limited this morning because of the angle given to the new proposals. In mixing advantages for rich people with improving social mobility, any chance of debate and constructive discussion over these proposals has been blown out of the water.

If, despite the almost immediate backlash, the government proposals become a reality, I imagine they will ditch the ‘social mobility’ justification. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re looking to move away from that angle already.

UPDATE: When I mentioned a backlash, I wasn’t exaggerating.

In fact, such opposition meant the government had to rush out a statement on this matter. David Willetts said:

“We will only consider allowing off-quota places where it contributes to the coalition commitment to improve social mobility and increase fair access.

“There is no question of wealthy students being able to buy a place at university. Access to a university must be based on ability to learn not ability to pay.

“We have been discussing the idea of charitable donors and employers endowing additional places on a needs blind basis which will be subject for consultation in the higher education white paper.” [Source]

Wonkhe has also posted on the off-quota places issue and admitted, “May need to update later on as things move”.

It is a fast moving day. And It’s only midday at time of writing this! To put it into perspective, the final (amusing) thought can go to Thomas Graham:

Access agreements and uncertainties

If universities want to charge more than £6,000 in yearly tuition fees, they have to outline how they intend to help attract disadvantaged students and improve social mobility.

The Office For Fair Access (OFFA) has today published guidance to universities on how to produce an ‘access agreement’. Access agreements set out the ways in which an institution would promote and improve student retention, student outreach, financial assistance, and other activities to benefit social mobility.

It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.

photo by john curley
photo by john curley

Speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, OFFA’s director, Martin Harris, said that universities must prove what they promise to do ‘in retrospect’. While proposals must be ‘stretching and demanding’, this leaves universities with a largely free reign on how they want to proceed. For now.

Given the general flexibility so far allowed in creating access agreements, it’s no surprise that representative groups are positive. Paul Marshall, Executive Director of the 1994 Group said:

“By allowing universities to set their own widening participation benchmarks OFFA have recognised that each university has its own priorities, and will be best placed to set the most appropriate measures.”

Russell Group’s Wendy Piatt was equally upbeat:

“We welcome the fact that OFFA will be allowing universities some scope to set their own targets and milestones for access work, noting that ‘there is no single perfect measure of access performance’.”

Such open possibilities make it difficult to see how anyone will achieve an overall awareness of what will end up becoming necessary in the longer term. I strongly suspect that there will be alterations based on the first year or two, which will result in an even longer period before a manageable picture is revealed.

Will it ever be clear which aspects of the system really can help HE and student intake? Students and staff alike know they must jump through particular hoops to get from one place to another. The difference now is that the hoops have slightly changed and may change again.

Potential students can see they might suffer in terms of fees and repayments, but can they be certain at the same time that they’ll benefit from a more level playing field? Is there enough potential in the future to break down barriers and help young people in a more targeted fashion, even before the idea of university becomes an important life choice?

Unfortunately, we just don’t know. Social mobility has a long way to go. All universities play an important part in enhancing mobility. Therefore, it’s important to make sure there’s a limit to unnecessary exclusions that could have still played a helpful part. If these elements are removed prematurely due to lack of funds, improvements elsewhere will, at best, cause stasis, not growth.

At times like this, I often acknowledge the bumpy ride that’s ahead for anyone involved. But when is the road not bumpy? If it’s going to take several years before greater clarity can be achieved, it will probably be just in time for a new set of sweeping changes to come about.

Not everyone is having to tread water and there is plenty of opportunity for HE to shine further, but it would be foolish for me to say that any wide-ranging situation can ever experience a bump-free terrain.

Mission groups are mainly positive that access agreements won’t be a barrier to setting fees of their choosing. Future students are now aware that fees are likely to be a lot higher and they must choose based on new rules. Current developments expose the latest hurdle that needs crossing (or fighting). But the next hurdle will never be far away.

My analogy shouldn’t consist of a bumpy journey. It’s more like a bucking bronco ride. We stay on for as long as we can.

And if we fall off? Either jump back on or choose a different ride. Make of that what you will. I’m not sure I’ve worked it out yet…

Making student places available and how to fund them

Channel 4 News last night provided a debate on the number of students going in to higher education and whether more places should be provided to meet demand.

Many young people are finding it difficult to find a place at uni, despite outstanding grades.  Rejections may come down solely to a flawed personal statement, or some minor issue that’s become a major block.  In all this uncertainty, it’s clear that the current system of allocating places at university is not supporting all those who would benefit from higher education.

photo by id-iom

photo by id-iom

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities, was first to speak on the Channel 4 debate.  She said huge increase in applications forces the question of whether the economy needs this many graduates and, if so, how can we afford them?  Due to world competition, Piatt argued that quality should be maintained.  Why short change students by spreading a limited pot of money too thinly?

Piatt went on to say that the current system does not support greater numbers of students.  Rather than have everybody pay the same amount of money, Piatt said there should be variation, especially as some people earn much more than others.

Strangely, this last point reminded me of an argument for graduate tax, which the Russell Group opposes.  They would rather see the cap on fees raised, if not abolished altogether.

It’s no surprise that the Russell Group want higher fees. They would be able to charge much more, yet maintain a full quota of students.  If any set of universities can stay strong based on their history and prestige, it is this set.

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Professor Leslie Davies, vice chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said that HE currently caters for different purposes, needs and lifestyles. However, there needs to be further diversification to meet learner’s needs.  For instance, not all students want to move away from home for three years now.  A big shift is happening with better informed students looking more closely at career prospects.

Davies explained that employers are looking for a wide range of qualifications and skills from the workforce, with many companies recognising A-levels as a way in, as well as Diplomas and vocational routes.  A “one size fits all” approach is no longer helpful, so young people require better advice and guidance to suit their personal situation.

NUS President, Aaron Porter, warned of greater costs for the government unless more places were created for students.  The burden on jobseeker’s allowance with many people out of work could be huge, he argued, with the number of jobs drying up and fierce competition for apprenticeships.

In terms of debt, Porter disagreed with Piatt that degree costs should be variable based on course studied.  Some people choose to study law & economics and want to be a teacher.  Why should they be saddled with more debt if they go on to that totally different vocation?

Porter said that both individuals and the state will lose out if the state continues to set an artificial cap on places.  Students should be able to attend university if they wish and demonstrate the ability and grades.  Compared with OECD countries, the UK is slipping down the tables fast.  More people are entering higher education in other countries compared with here, which could severely limit the UK workforce.

photo by garlandcannon

photo by garlandcannon

How did the students see all this?  Also in the studio was a mix of young people either going to university this year or who had missed out on a place at uni despite good grades.

A selection of comments:

  • Students are a burden, but they are also the next workforce who need the right skills and training;
  • University may not be the only choice, but why stop people who DO want to attend and who have made the grade?
  • Looks like re-stratification. Fine if you can afford Cambridge, otherwise forced to do something else like get a diploma from a ‘random college’;
  • Graduate tax is a good idea. However, differential rates do pose a difficulty and it’s not easy to argue the best solution;
  • If you want to go to uni and have your mind set on it, you should have that right.  University is not the only way to kickstart a career.
  • Social perception needs changing before we can better engage public on benefits of HE.  Students are still seen as a lazy bunch who do precious little, but it’s a misconception;
  • Student debt is a growing issue for those looking at future options.  More potential students being turned off now there’s a greater chance of debt skyrocketing further.

The debate made clear that everyone agreed on certain points:

  1. University isn’t the only valid option available to further career prospects;
  2. Better advice and guidance is required to help people make better choices;
  3. Current numbers of students are not sustainable unless some form of change is introduced.

The third point is where much of the agreement breaks down.  The debate rests on where change should be made.  Should diversity naturally lower the number of people filing in to universities?  Should fees be raised and students/graduates shoulder the burden?  Should the artificial cap on places be lifted and funding be sourced from other savings?

I feel the first two points are crucial in assisting the change required in the third point.  Luckily, there is so much agreement on those two points.

Student numbers and funding provision are still the big issues for the government.  In the process, individual choices and the widening of opportunity falls deeper to the background.  What if the way forward was actually moving further away from view?  This is even more pertinent after Nick Clegg’s recent speech on social mobility:

“This is a complex and contested area of both research and policy. And action to improve social mobility will take many years to take effect. In policy terms, it is like turning the wheel on an oil tanker.

“Promoting social mobility is a long-term business. And it is precisely for that reason that it is vital to establish now, at the beginning of our time in office, that promoting social mobility is at the top of our social agenda.”

Social mobility involves more than money and affordability.  This is just the same for universities. Funding may be the problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s also the solution.