In the last few days there has been a lot of media coverage about David Cameron’s ‘gaffe‘ about the number of Black British students at Oxford University. The Prime Minister claimed that Oxford had only recruited one Black British student in 2009. The University have countered this by claiming that they actually recruited “at least 26” Black British students that year.
There is, of course, much that can and should be said about the failure of 15 years (plus) of widening participation initiatives to alter the unequal access to elite universities by students from certain ethnicities in the UK. The fact that for so long there were more Black British students of Caribbean heritage enrolled at London Metropolitan University than all of the Russell Group institutions put together speaks volumes. Similarly, there is the ghettoization within certain subject areas of those Black Caribbean students lucky enough to be admitted to these elite universities – for many years almost all of the Caribbean heritage students enrolled at Kings College London were studying nursing.
But my interest in this story lies elsewhere. Why does David Cameron care so much about the number of Black Caribbean students admitted to Oxford. It is possible, of course, that he is embarrassed and shamefaced by the admissions practices of his alma mater, but I think it is more than that. I suggest that Cameron’s concern here has political motivation – it helps him to articulate and justify the Coalition Government’s favoured discourse of ‘fairness’ in education. As last week’s Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers strategy document on social mobility states:
Fairness is a fundamental value of the Coalition Government. A fair society is an open society. A society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise. Where birth is never destiny. (pg 3).
The promotion of fairness by the Coalition allows them to distinguish their education policies from those of New Labour, whilst effectively pursuing more of the same (only more intensively). Fifteen years of aspiration-raising interventions and outreach activities by universities have not increased the number of Black Caribbean students and a new round of aspiration-raising interventions sponsored by business will do no better. These young people’s aspirations are not the problem – racist recruitment practices by universities and a school system that consistently fails Black Caribbean students, amongst others, are.
I recently discovered a briefing presentation from the Cabinet Office (published in January 2009), Aspiration and attainment amongst young people in deprived communities, which begins to add a new level of spatial sophistication to the Government’s analysis of how place impacts on young people’s aspirations. The key findings from this report state:
Communities matter. Young people in certain types of neighbourhood are less likely to develop ambitious, achievable aspirations. These neighbourhoods tend to have high levels of deprivation. (pg 2)
Nothing new or surprising there. However, the next sentence takes the analysis in an interesting new direction:
However deprived communities are not all the same. Young people in some very deprived communities have high aspirations (pg 2)
The Cabinet Office team have used MOSAIC geodemographic classifications to analyse the progression rates to higher education from different postcodes that figure highly on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. They recognise that deprived inner city neighbourhoods with high concentrations of (certain) minority ethnic groups have significantly higher progression rates than many predominantly white working class neighbourhoods that have been blighted by deindustrialisation over the last 30 years. They recognise that dense social networks may offer valuable mutual support in some circumstances but can lead to an isolated and insular local culture that mitigates against high aspirations for young people growing up in those areas.
This research has clearly fed into the development of the Government’s latest policy initiative to address young people’s aspirations at a community level. The Inspiring Communities programme was also announced in January and will be formally launched in the summer.
Interestingly, the socially deprived MOSAIC categories that the Cabinet Office identify as producing young people with high aspirations (Counter-Cultural Mix, Metro Multiculture, and South Asian Industry) are precisely the same types of neighbourhood that Pamela Garlick and I found large numbers of medical students from ‘widening participation backgrounds’ had been recruited from in our 2007 paper ‘Changing Geographies of Access to Medical Education’ published in Health & Place.
Despite these similarities, I think there is a danger of over-relying on geodemographics. More work needs to be done to analyse what it is about the attitudes of these young people and their families that makes a difference. The Cabinet Office identify that many deprived white working class communities tend to be isolated and inward-looking. In this respect, I think they might be on to something – that the stance of a young person (and, by extension, that of their family and social network) in relation to the world may be crucial. If you have an outward-looking orientation, looking to what Doreen Massey has called ‘place beyond place’, then you are more likely to have extensive social networks to draw on for support and inspiration, and you are more likely to be able to see opportunities for yourself beyond those that are immediately to hand in your locality.
Now that I have had a chance to analyse much of the date collected through the various components of this research project, I am developing a clearer idea of the key themes that have emerged through this research. For now, I want to flag up three of the main strands of my analysis.
- Aspirations-talk and scale: there are clear differences in the tone of the language used by ministers (and in official Government publications) depending on the scale in relation to which they are discussing young people’s aspirations. When young people’s aspirations are mobilised to talk about the potential for developing and maintaining the global competitiveness of the British economy in the decades to come, the language tends to be optimistic and highly ‘aspirational’ (if that’s not a tautology). In contrast, more and more, when ministers talk about the aspirations of young people themselves (especially when they are deemed not to be high enough to meet the needs of the national economy), the tone is far more one of regulation and control.
- Orienting young people’s aspirations. There are two thread to this set of findings: the first relates to the different spatial metaphors enroled to talk about young people’s aspirations – whether the role of widening participation is to ‘raise aspirations’ or to ‘broaden [young people’s] horizons’. The use of these two metaphors by ministers and Government agencies has varied over time, and to some degree between different bodies. My findings suggest that these metaphors matter and they shape widening participation practitioners’ understandings of their work and the form that their professional practice takes. The second thread here relates to the issues [discussed above, in relation to the recent Cabinet Office findings] about the extend to which young people’s orientation to the wider world shapes their aspirations and ambitions for adult life – and what the consequences of this might be for widening participation practice.
- Emotional geographies of young people’s ambitions. This strand of my work draws on an understanding of ‘aspiration’ (and ‘ambition’) as an emotional sensation, that is deeply entangled with a range of other emotions and affective states. This analysis approaches young people’s ambitions (and the barriers to their realisation) as often being intimately linked to place (or a desire to escape certain places). Finally, this aspect of my analysis considers the various ways in which widening participation practice seeks to provoke particular emotional experiences for young people – whether that is through attempting to increase their confidence, self-esteem and resilience, or creating ‘wow!’ moments during widening participation events and interventions.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll share more thoughts about each of these issues.