Widening access: are we imposing middle-class values on everyone?

University may not always be the best option for those from poorer backgrounds. Jack Grove reports

July 21, 2011

Credit: Marwood Jenkins/Alamy
Life skills Academics attested to the value of other forms of education

The desire to send more poor children to university is driven by a snobbish belief in the supremacy of middle-class values over traditional working-class aspirations to gain money and a happy family life.

That was the argument advanced by Michael Watts, lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge, at a seminar that investigated the ethics behind widening participation and considered whether it was inevitably a good thing.

Speaking at the Society for Research into Higher Education event in London last week, Dr Watts said public debate about access failed to recognise that university education might not be right for everyone.

"If someone has had a rotten time at school and wants to be a bricklayer, work with animals or be a young mother, from an ethical point of view, why should we want to send them to university?" he said.

"Higher education is not for everyone and it does not necessarily offer well-being. Just because you don't go to university does not mean you do not want to be educated.

"We have different conceptions of what constitutes the good life. It's a useful way of approaching widening participation because it recognises the importance of human diversity."

Dr Watts said graduates from poorer backgrounds are also often denied the benefits enjoyed by middle-class alumni because they lack the "cultural capital" to access top jobs and institutions.

"(They) will not necessarily have an equal opportunity to use that qualification," he said.

However, he added that it was vital for young people to be given the choice of whether to enter higher education.

Jacqueline Stevenson, reader in widening participation at Leeds Metropolitan University, also felt that snobbery was inherent in debates about access. "People do not necessarily aspire to middle-class ways of being. Aspiration can be interpreted differently," she said.

She also suggested that the desire for social mobility could sometimes be rooted in a wish to remove the "threat" of the working class and make people more middle class.

Discussing social mobility, she said: "It's not about taking people out of poverty. It's about moving people from one class to another. But what is wrong with being working class?"

The event took place days after the Office for Fair Access announced it had rubber-stamped all 139 access agreements submitted by universities and higher education institutions. Under the plans, universities will devote a portion of their tuition fee income over £6,000 towards initiatives to increase access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No targets have been set for the number of people from poorer backgrounds who should attend universities. However, failure to admit sufficient numbers of poorer students could lead to a £6,000 cap on fees.


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