Our widening access debate wound down this weekend with a nice summary from Martin and a collection of resources put together throughout the two weeks. I thought it was worth going through my final thoughts on the debate.
Firstly, I have to admit to a little of my own views creeping into Dr Johnson’s vehement speech which kicked off the debate. These are mainly due to my own experience as an undergraduate which, despite where I’ve ended up, was pretty unsuccessful (on the academic side at least…). I went to Edinburgh University after a pretty successful school career (5 As in my Highers pretty much gave me the pick of any course, anywhere) mainly through lack of any alternative. The thought of not going to Uni was inconceivable after I made the mistake of showing a bit of intelligence at school, and I had no desire to be a doctor or a Lawyer so I simply chose the subject I was best at: Physics. This was loudly applauded by both guidance teacher and parents – “Physics eh? That’s hard! Whoo-wee, he’ll get a high paying job out of that!” Little or no thought, however, went into what that job would be, or whether I’d actually want to do it. The mentality at the time was simply to get the degree and you’d have a guaranteed high paying job for life. Naturally, as a gullible 18 year old I complied!
What followed was a pretty unproductive 4 years in which I coasted the first 2 and hit a bit of a block in the third, mainly due to coasting the first 2… Physics, while covering a lot of interesting concepts, was basically pretty dull, and I had no concept of what it might gain me to push me through that barrier. I left after completing the 3rd year, got my ordinary degree and ended up with very little advantage over my situation of 3 years before apart from a nice big chunk of student debt.
The point I’m getting at is that I don’t think university was for me at that time, or if it was I needed a lot more advice on how to choose a course. A lot of discussion has gone on in our debate about the fact that many degrees offer small advantage to the modern job hunter considering how long they take to gain. I wonder if that’s partially to do with the fact that many people are railroaded into attending FE and HE simply because it’s seen as the panacea for someone who’s unsure what to do with their life. They choose a subject that might interest them, often with little thought as to where it might take them, and then the university and the government are surprised when it takes them nowhere, either by feeding retention statistics by dropping out or simply not finding a job they want through their degree.
I feel that Christina was right when she said that a lot of the current problems associated with Widening Access could be solved by investing more time at school in preparing students for what comes next. Students have to be told that university or college will only benefit them if they have a clear aim in mind, and that 3 or 4 year’s relevant work experience can often give them the same leverage as a degree when applying for jobs. This applies to anyone, whether from a disadvantaged background or a public school upbringing. I certainly feel that I negatively affected the retention statistics and I had both a middle-class background and a successful school career behind me. It was simply preparation and support in the application phase that I lacked. Mark De Groot made a similar point about his own children. Despite again being from a ‘traditional’ student background they have graduated from University with little idea of what they want to do in life and gained naut but a hugely relaxed attitude towards debt!
I think the point I’m winding my way towards is that I don’t think that widening access should even be an issue. Proper support should be offered to every school leaver in choosing their path in life, whether that be a joinery apprenticeship, a journalism cadetship, a medical degree or a PHd, and if they require FE or HE along that path then that option should be open to them. Encouraging everyone and anyone to attend further education wont solve anything – it will simply raise the national debt statistics and waste time for people who probably didn’t require it in the first place. The perfect system would support every student equally, regardless of background, and instead of blindly pushing them down a certain path it would offer them support to achieve whatever they want in life. The aim should not be widening access to education, but widening access to a productive career. In this systen further education would make up an important, but often unnecessary, part of the whole.