Why we need to change the whole rules of the university game

Tom Fryer is the founder of Write on Point, which offers UCAS personal statement coaching to students from under-represented backgrounds. This is provided by postgraduate students through an online platform.

In the recent HEPI and Brightside report, Where next for widening participation and fair access?, Paul Clarke outlines sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of social capital, and its role in widening participation. While Clarke draws on several of Bourdieu’s theories, there’s an element of cherry picking. Bourdieu is a radical scholar that goes far beyond calling for a more equitable distribution of social capital. If we take him seriously—and I think we should—we need a much more radical approach to university access.

Bourdieu’s work repeatedly calls for upending academic norms, so with that in mind, I’d like to draw on a Star Wars analogy.

A popular pastime in Tatooine, Anakin Skywalker’s home planet, is the dangerous sport of podracing—think Formula 1 with super-fast aircraft. To race, and to win, you need both exceptional piloting skills and the right combination of tools. Not everyone can engage on an equal level; there are various forms of capital that influence how someone, whether Human, Dug or Jawa, can participate.

1. Financial capital – you need a huge stack of Wupiupi, the local currency, to get into podracing. Even if you can afford a pod, you have to factor in maintenance fees if your pod is hit by Tusken Raider pot-shots. And we all know Umbaran hover tank repairs don’t come cheap.

2. Cultural capital – you need tonnes of knowledge and experience of podracing techniques and mechanics. If you’re always confusing your repulsorlift and with the turbine engine, then podracing really isn’t for you. Plus, even with perfect knowledge and great flying technique, every podracer needs the certification from the Tatooine Aircraft Mechanics And Teaching Ensemble (TA MATE). It’s a shame this is monopolised by the Dug, who skew the entry requirements in their favour. Speaking formal Dug doesn’t make you a better flier, but if you mix up your ‘Du’ and ‘du’ you can kiss TA MATE certification goodbye.

3. Social capital – you need the right social connections in the podracing field. Social capital doesn’t make podracers faster—unlike a more expensive pod or more knowledge of podracing strategies—however these social connections can convert to financial and cultural capital, through an aunty willing to buy you the latest hovercraft or that friend of your parents who wrote the TA MATE textbook.

The amount of capital that one possesses, whether financial, cultural or social, serves to police access to both university and podracing. As widening participation practitioners, it simply isn’t enough to develop strategies to increase the capital of under-represented groups. This approach accepts the rules of the game, when it is these very rules that create an environment that allows inequality to be reproduced. Let’s return to the Star Wars analogy, and the case of two podracers, Kitster and Gasgano, to explain this:

Kitster Gasgano
Financial 200 Wupiupis scholarship 200,000 Wupiupis from his trust fund
Cultural One week internship at TA MATE (CSR scheme) Employed by his mother’s friend at TA MATE
Social Charity-organised mentoring with podracer Aldar Beedo A member of the East Utapau Club (alongside all respectable podracers)

 

The three interventions do increase Kitster’s chances of becoming a podracer, but it’s far from a level playing field. Gasgano can afford a faster pod, his employment with TA MATE is considered more impressive than a one week internship, and his East Utapau Club connections open many more doors than Aldar Beedo’s charitable intervention. It could even be argued—and I think Bourdieu would agree—that the interventions miss the bigger picture, and may actually do more harm than good. The interventions make it seem as though the system through which individuals access and succeed in podracing is fair and meritocratic; they accept that it is okay to police this boundary by looking at TA MATE certificates, and ignore the ways in which some still have huge advantages. In other words, the interventions fail to challenge the rules of the game.

My primary purpose isn’t to explain how to do this, but the essay by Boliver, Gorard and Siddiqui touches on one example. Universities tend to assume that exam results are a proxy for academic ability. However, exam results are influenced by diverse factors from socio-economic status to your month of birth. Maintaining fixed grade entry requirements, creates a sham meritocracy in which some students—namely those with greater amounts of financial, cultural and social capital—are better placed to succeed. We need to challenge the assumption that grades reflect ability, which does little more than to legitimate the reproduction of inequality. Let’s instead draw on contextual data to better understand achievement within exams, rather than assuming that grades speak for themselves.

Bourdieu encourages us to take a step back and look at the field of WP with fresh eyes. What are we challenging, and what are we perpetuating? He makes it clear that WP teams need to advocate for fundamental rule change, if we hope to stop HE reproducing social inequality.

It’s not good enough to make the current system a tad less regressive.