widening participation

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.

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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.

inside-out-paris

World-class institutions or enabling world-class individuals?

University World News has published a fascinating debate, asking if too much emphasis is being put on world-class universities to the detriment of issues like widening participation.

Should all universities strive to top league tables and aim to be the best of the best?

photo by Stefan
photo by Stefan

Ellen Hazelkorn makes the following statement:

“Governments and universities must stop obsessing about global rankings and the top 1% of the world’s 15,000 institutions. Instead of simply rewarding the achievements of elites and flagship institutions, policy needs to focus on the quality of the system-as-a-whole.” [Source]

Another piece, by Parra, Bozo & Inciarte, considers universities in developing countries. But in some ways, it may be worth considering the following in terms of UK institutions too:

“…there cannot be a single model for universities. Rather, different models of universities or other higher education institutions that respond to diverse needs and are substantially different in quality, status and content need to coexist.

“Some universities will reflect the top research centre model; others, the training or professionalising model; and there will be universities that focus their performance on social needs such as community engagement, social service, the micro-economy and social mobility.”

Difficulties arise for widening participation when different levels of higher learning develop, so nothing is simple. Making certain institutions more appealing to disadvantaged young people, for instance, somewhat misses the point. Yet it’s also crucial to consider a diverse range of individual needs and pathways.

It’s easy to say that Oxbridge isn’t necessarily for everyone. But how easy is it to say that the lowest ranked university in the country might be best suited to a top-grade student?

I bet the second statement doesn’t fit so comfortably. My question is, should that be the case?

Success has many faces and comes from many places. As Doug Belshaw argues, “You can strive to be élite (as an individual, organisation or country) without being élitist”. Therefore, in the right circumstances, world-class achievement can arise from a humble position.

Next time you hear someone make a basic comparison or simply state that one thing is better than another, remember that the remarks can only be subjective. Even considerable attempts to back up what’s being said won’t usually result in unarguable fact.

Higher education encompasses so much that institutions can struggle to shine in their many roles and competitive situations. That is why different models of engagement should be welcomed, “otherwise focus is increasingly replaced by dilution“.

Could a world-class graduate emerge from a low-ranking university? I say it’s just as likely as finding a mediocre graduate from a world-class institution.

What say you?

Further reading from the University World News debate:

Universities: A non-market market?

With a Browne Report and a Comprehensive Spending Review out of the way, it’s now clear to see what the future holds.

Wait, no it’s not.  The future is more clouded than ever.  Fiddlesticks.

If you’ve had any interest in Browne and the CSR, you’ll have seen plenty of commentary.  I don’t want to go over the same stuff, although I’ve made lots of notes and can post more at popular request… 😉

Instead, I’ll keep in brief.  And I’ll leave most of the words to others.

Giles H. Brown, Editor-in-Chief of HE policy journal, Perspectives, explains that universities can’t be viewed the same way as businesses:

“Research suggest tertiary education is unlikely ever to operate as a market in a way an economist would recognise (Brown 2008); we are therefore likely to remain market-like, but not a market, in the same way as we are increasingly having to be business-like, but cannot operate truly as a business.  Like it or not, we cannot strictly separate the sector from the market; we are increasingly dependent on the ‘market’, while recognising the importance of retaining some degree of autonomy from it.”

[Perspectives, Vol.14, No.3, 2010]

So how much autonomy will there be?  Times Higher Education (THE) highlights concern.  This week’s editorial stresses that Browne claims to be offering universities freedom, but actually introduces a ‘state-controlled and regulated industry‘.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published their response to the Browne Report, dismissing much of it as a serious way forward.

Then there are the concerns surrounding fees.  Prospective students be warned; if Browne’s proposals go through, there may be no real market on fees, much like now.  THE reports that most unis may have to charge around £8,000 just to get by.  This has led NUS to say the spending review informs an entire generation, “you’re on your own“.  And these possible fee rises may not even accurately factor in the natural decline in 18-21 year olds from 2012.

This may also have a knock-on effect for widening participation.  Steve Smith, President of Universities UK (UUK), explains:

“We know we are facing a demographic downturn from 2012, with a 15.6% decline in the 18- to 21-year-old age group within the decade – not the only cohort, but a major one, for student recruitment: already this year the participation rate has fallen from 41% to 39.7%.  Unless we can raise the attainment levels of 16-year-olds, the numbers coming into higher education from the lower socioeconomic groups will not increase at the pace we would like them to.”

[Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2010]

Compare this with Browne’s wish for a further 10% of students to enter higher education.  Getting a particular percentage into HE is not the point.  Widening participation isn’t about greater numbers, it’s about ensuring that those who can benefit from HE are given that chance.  Some people enter HE who would have benefited from something else and I believe just as much effort should be placed on helping these individuals.  One positive aspect of the Browne Report is its recognition that better careers advice and prospective student guidance should be given to allow greater understanding and to give individuals a better chance in making decisions that suit their individual needs.

But can we achieve these things under a market system that doesn’t necessary work like a market?

These are strange times.  Bonkers, in fact.  All of us will be affected one way or another.  And nobody really knows how yet.

But there is one certainty: No matter what your opinion is — even if you don’t care — none of us can put our head in the sand.