The truth about the Mummy and Daddy factor

July 6, 2007

Ucas changes will help first-generation scholars, Jocey Quinn writes in our series on new ideas for higher education

"Outrageous", "nightmarish" shrieked recent headlines - perhaps cowering at Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Grindhouse ? No, it was something much more gruesome: the news that Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms were to be amended so that beginning in 2008, degree applicants would be asked to record whether their parents attended university. The horror, the horror!

Looking back, the media furore seems ridiculous. The simple proposal to alter a form chimes with a key finding of international research led by Liz Thomas and me - that parental education is the most influential factor in determining how easy it is for would-be higher education students to get to university and succeed there.

Ucas's seemingly low-key move opens up some dark territory for the middle classes. The very idea that parental education is worth recording will challenge universities to recognise that material, social and cultural resources, including those available to the family, have shaped each applicant's history. It allows universities to read schooling, qualifications and even leisure activities and volunteering in context, and in doing so make fairer judgments about achievements and potential.

The ultimate consequence should be that access is improved for some, and plain sailing through the system becomes a little less easy for others. In our culture of individualism many don't see this as increasing the common good but as threatening the future of our own cherished offspring.

To find a proposal that may reduce the dominance of the educated middle classes over the education system seems to me a cause for celebration. Bring on the social engineering and let's be quick about it. Would that it were so easy to redress an imbalance that has seen almost total middle-class saturation of higher education and a proportional decline in working-class participation since the 1960s.

In comparative research analysing evidence from ten countries, including the UK and the US, we found that parental education seemed to have even more influence over who went to university and did well there than parental occupation or income.

Just to take two examples, analysis of Statistics Canada data showed that young adults from the poorest families, but with parents with higher education qualifications, were more likely to go to college and university than those from families with more money but no history of higher education.

In the US, the American Council for Education found that even among the most highly qualified young people those with college-educated parents were far more likely to enrol at university than those without. Class and parental education are intertwined, but the evidence shows there is something distinctive about the impact of parental education.

We have combined this international meta-analysis with evidence from our qualitative research with first-generation students in disadvantaged areas of the UK. It revealed the extent to which parental education influenced the lives of students who had dropped out. They saw themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of families and as making decisions shaped by family knowledge and priorities.

Far from lacking aspirations for their children, the parents and grandparents of first-generation scholars clearly valued higher education. One interviewee recounted: "My granddad says that if I finish my degree I can be anything. I could pack shelves if I wanted to - I can have the choice - but if I don't do my course I won't have a choice. You can go down but you can't go up."

The difference perhaps was that for such families a degree was not essential to being a "person", which it almost seems to be in middle-class families. Parents had a "working attitude", and going to university was a question of "doing", not "being". Higher education should add to family security and prospects, not threaten it, so choices, locations and practices evolved in that light.

When those students were at university their parents did their best to help and support. But they did so without the benefit of insider knowledge that makes it much easier to navigate and challenge the system: "They just didn't have the experience in it."

Saying that parental education makes a difference is not a deficit argument. Parents who have never been to university in any capacity lack no essential qualities. Indeed, their contingent and flexible attitudes to higher education could be much healthier than the fervent obsessions of many graduate parents. However, they have lacked educational opportunities and resources along with material and social resources, and there is strong evidence to show that this has a problematic impact on their children's access to and experience of university.

The Ucas debate raises interesting and important questions about the interconnections of families and universities. Let's welcome this new picture, not hide our heads in fear.

Jocey Quinn is a professor at the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University.

She will speak at a seminar on families and universities on Monday, July 9 on the subject of "First-generation entry to higher education: an international study". A book of the same name, written by Professor Quinn and Liz Thomas, was published by Open University Press, £25.99. Details from j.quinn@londonmet.ac.uk .

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