Murray N and Klinger C (eds) (2014) Aspirations, Access and Attainment: International perspectives on widening participation and an agenda for change, London: Routledge
The international scope of this text covers the UK, USA, Australia and South Africa as a representative of sub-Saharan Africa. The themes of widening participation and student retention are covered in great detail. Indeed the issue of Widening Participation is dealt with from several dimensions – socio-economic, individual/moral and societal. The chapters are packed with statistics and these are related to an historical perspective. Many conclusions are drawn, but most startling is the view that despite the efforts, emanating from governmental policies little has really changed in terms of the intended goal of improved social mobility for the under-represented groups.
Most interesting in the first 138 pages – devoted to widening participation, associated policy and recruitment – are the perceived impact. For South Africa, for example, despite the rhetoric, issues of capacity have not really been addressed. The recruitment by Universities’ in developed countries is questioned in terms of the moral dimension, and the term ‘bums on seats’ does come to mind.
The text is very well edited and planned in that consistent messages do come through, despite the large number of chapter writers, all themselves from different countries s and cultures. The need for Universities to be more active in outreach, to raise aspirations of under-represented social and racial groups is very clearly articulated. In addition, the extent to which Universities set realistic expectations, and whether the impact of their workload I designed to benefit the lower socio-economic groups or to reinforce the more middle class and commercialised sections of society.
The second half of the book covers issues associated with retention, identifying why the drop-out rates particular amongst some groups are higher than others. Study skills, a sense of belonging, weak teaching and an unwillingness to move away from traditional modes stand out as key issues. Although financial issues are cited, one is left to wonder if these are the reasons cited after other aspects have gone wrong. The facts shout out: mature students, part time students, ethnic minority groups and students from poorer backgrounds are not catered for as well as white middle class students, who enter University well informed and prepared for University life.
It is very pleasing that the book draws on the perspectives of students themselves. Chapters at the end of the book, written by representative student bodies show two things – a readiness to practice what the editors think – and to listen to students on matters which directly affect students; and that consultation with students serves to build an evidence base.
Often books with a sociological angle and perspective deal with theories associated with power and influence on a macro scale. This book includes example of practice, and considers their impact. In this way the messages are very powerful – that organisational structures, cultures and approaches can make a difference. In order to do so, there are some interesting recommendations. It is pointed out that consultation with young people who choose not to go to university, and with those who do withdraw, may yield more useful information and guidance than constantly reflecting on policy and existing strategy. The need for care, understanding, interaction, personalised guidance all emerge as key factors. If these are in place the laudable aims, stated early in the text become more feasible. As society is changing, there is a need for more highly qualified people, and as traditional industries and jobs decline in the West, there are fewer opportunities for workers with traditional skills and outlooks. However, with the international agenda in mind, I would pose the question of how local labour forces are prepared in developing countries for manufacturing, when universities from all over the world are attracting academically and financially able students.
The enduring message for me, is a recurring theme in the chapters. If social mobility is the overarching aim, it is too late to wait for universities to solve the problems. Only through outreach work and interventions n a global scale at primary and secondary level will lead to the desired outcome of an increased graduate population.
Professor Kit Field, University of Wolverhampton