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New Insights on WP: The importance of social capital

  • 16 August 2017
  • By Paul Clarke

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Over the next few weeks, we will be showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the second in the series, features the chapter written by Paul Clarke, Head of External Affairs at Brightside, on the importance of social capital in widening participation.

Who you know: The importance of social capital in widening participation

Paul Clarke

According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, ‘capital’ is not just an economic concept. He also saw an individual’s knowledge and tastes as a form of cultural capital, which is ‘institutionalized in the form of educational qualifications’. Bourdieu believed different levels of access to various forms of capital are the root causes of social inequality, something perhaps magnified in higher education.

It makes sense, therefore, that financial support and attainment-raising are the two most common widening participation strategies. Bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers address the financial barriers disadvantaged students face by providing greater economic capital. Tutoring and academic enrichment programmes tackle the primary reason for poorer students’ lower rates of progression to high-tariff institutions in particular: that they are less likely to have the right form of cultural capital embodied in the necessary grades.

Bourdieu also formulated the theory of ‘field’ or the social environment, such as university, in which individuals operate. It is an idea with clear echoes in the talk of ‘level playing fields’ familiar from discussions of widening participation, and Bourdieu himself talked of ‘playing the game’. But Bourdieu intended that ‘field’ could also allude to ‘battle field’. And it is clear that not every student has the weapons they need for this battle field.

There have been impressive advances in widening participation, with entry rates from the poorest neighbourhoods increasing by 65 per cent between 2006 and 2015. But recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal that, with non-continuation rates for disadvantaged students rising faster than for other groups, these students face severe challenges when it comes to succeeding in higher education. A report from the Social Mobility Commission says working-class graduates are both paid less and are less likely to be promoted than privately-schooled graduates during their professional careers. The fact that this study controlled for prior attainment demonstrates that increasing cultural capital in the form of their knowledge and skills is not enough.

Compared to economic and cultural capital, social capital is more difficult to define. Bourdieu described it as ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’. Or, to put it in more common parlance, ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. That social capital is so slippery to nail down makes it more difficult to design and evaluate interventions than for financial support and attainment, which have more easily identifiable and quantifiable inputs and outputs.

Social capital is an important factor shaping an individual’s understanding of the world, what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’ and which can be defined as a framework of skills, knowledge and expectations that guides behaviour. Habitus is heavily influenced by personal experiences from upbringing and schooling from an early age. Broadly speaking, if no one in a young person’s family or social circle has been to university, they are less likely to go themselves. In some cases, this is due to a belief that higher education simply ‘isn’t for the likes of me’, that its middle-class image conflicts with a working-class identity. Changing this perception is the principle behind raising aspirations in outreach work targeted at groups such as white working-class boys. It requires sensitive engagement with not just young people but also their parents and the wider community, particularly in more isolated rural and coastal areas where progression to higher education is lowest, and where, according to IntoUniversity, some fear a drain of young people to universities in bigger cities.

However, many young people do aspire to study at university and are encouraged by their parents and others to do so. What they lack is an understanding of the rules – both written and unwritten – that will enable these aspirations to be realised, largely through having no access to the informal advice and support available to those from a background where going to university is taken for granted. This means too many young people remove themselves from a system that seems impenetrable, or make choices that lead to entering courses with outcomes that do not reflect their true potential or may bar them from particular institutions or courses in the future.

The ability to make confident and informed decisions is enhanced by greater social capital, yet developing it must begin well before the age of 16. Currently, the most intensive outreach work begins too late.

Social capital should be nurtured throughout university too. While a larger number of young people with degrees could be taken as reflective of widening participation’s success, this is not guaranteed, with a recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealing lower median earnings for male graduates studying certain courses at some universities than for non-graduates. In contrast, the return from social capital – of having the right connections to secure an internship, for example – is becoming higher. Knowing this is in itself a result of social capital: disadvantaged students often assume that studying hard to get a good mark is the key to success because no-one has told them of the other aspects and opportunities of university life they need to consider. Indeed, research by Ann-Marie Bathmaker, Nicola Ingram and Richard Waller suggests disadvantaged students are less likely to engage in extracurricular activities not only because their relative lack of economic capital means they often have to work to fund their studies, but also because they are unaware just how much the relationships and knowledge such extracurricular activities develop can be worth. Universities UK also emphasise the links between extracurricular activities, social capital and employability skills.

One-to-one support represents an opportunity to share social capital – for those who have it to support those who do not. So, for example, visits to classes from year 7 onwards by school alumni can demystify higher education by introducing younger people to role models from backgrounds to which they can relate. In later years, mentoring replicates networks by connecting disadvantaged students with people with experience of higher education who can help them understand the ‘rules of the game’. People who are the first in their family to go to university or lack the right support at school need someone who can help them decipher university websites and prospectuses, and give them insights from their own experiences. They can also reassure young people that higher education does contain people from similar backgrounds to their own, offering emotional support simply unavailable from scanning a website. The key to engaging with disadvantaged students is not just making them feel that they can get into higher education but that they also belong there. In an Aston University study of peer mentoring, mentees emphasised a sense of belonging as the most valuable benefit of mentoring, and most were more worried about adjusting to university life and making friends than their academic studies.

The benefits of one-to-one support for mentees are obvious as they vastly boost their chances of studying more appropriate courses, and thus their likelihood of finding a rewarding career. Mentors develop the communication, self-confidence and other employability skills essential after graduation. Indeed, many mentees become mentors, sharing their own newfound social capital with the younger cohorts in a virtuous circle. Meanwhile, universities have the potential to benefit from increased access and retention rates for their disadvantaged students. The Sutton Trust highlights forms of one-to-one support as being among the most effective outreach strategies. The Aston study cited evidence that peer mentoring improved retention and enhanced levels of student satisfaction regarding the overall quality of the university experience, resulting in increased commitment to the institution.

In this sense, we ultimately need to see developing young people’s social capital as a long-term investment and one which can transform higher education from an engine of social reproduction to the engine of social mobility it is at its best.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.


1 comment

  1. Ian says:

    Yes. However, the ‘right form’ of social capital is very variable, and virtually impossible for others to prescribe someone. Estate managers that socialise heavily during their studies, often develop far more human capital (in the sense of potential lifetime earnings premium) than their peers who excel academically. More recently I’ve been ranting that your mentoring approach well suits arts & creative occupations – where employment status is often informal to the point of insecurity. Whereas in engineering, placements (such as ‘thick sandwiches’) achieve a far better route to social capital. Thankfully for providers, the occupational communities that offer this support (such as alums) recognise the more valuable forms of social capital amongst their peers. They already offer appropriate support for students of their subjects, more readily than the poorly-fitting support. Universities should recognise the variability of ‘graduate attributes’ according to their students’ individual ambitions, or better yet to flexibly make these many different forms of social network available to students. That is, don’t insist all artists should take an industrial placement over mentoring, simply because that has worked so well for engineers in the past – or vice-versa.

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