«S u e Cl e g g J a cq u e li n e Steve nso n J o h n W ill ot t Acknowledgements This project has depended on the support of many people, to whom we ...»
... the only time it can be disadvantageous is if there is, if the activity’s paid and the student is desperately short of money and therefore they have to work to pay for their progress on the course and sadly, we have lots of students in that situation these days. Then of course that means that they sometimes are prevented from engaging in the course as much as they would like to or maybe as much as they should because they have to work. They have to work late and be up early for a nine ‘o’clock lecture in the morning. That always saddens me because I remember when I was a student, the students on full-time courses were full-time students but things have changed a lot in recent years and that’s rather quite sad. So that’s, that’s one area where I, or should I say one example where I think it could be a disadvantage.
(Staff 5, Male, PL, Music Technology) This member of staff, in common with many others, had given numerous examples of students creatively engaged in all sorts of work that could be relevant, and other ECA including a club run by technicians. His students emerged in his account of them as highly engaged and, although he recognised that not all staff were as encouraging as he felt himself to be, he worked hard to encourage his students to gain the full benefits of ECA for their graduate futures.
Like most of our respondents, however, he recognised the real structural constraints on students’ engagement. Many staff were frustrated and urged students to concentrate on their courses and recognised that absence was likely to be associated with less successful outcomes. How staff dealt with these dilemmas with regard to their own values varied; one Health staff member felt family comes first, while a female Humanities staff member felt the student must prioritise the academic. Sympathy prevailed, but nonetheless the problems of excessive work, family or other domestic commitments (although definitions of ‘excessive’ varied) were seen as invariably negative for curriculum engagement.
As we have seen above this concern extended to sports engagement, which although on both sports- and non-sports- related courses was regarded as largely beneficial nonetheless presented challenges if the commitments became excessive as regards time. One of the advantages of our non-normative approach to the question of ECA was that it allowed staff to explore both the manifold benefits of engagement, but also to explore the real difficulties they encountered.
The Higher Education Academy 90
The overall conclusions from our research can be summarised as follows:
1. There is a considerable lack of clarity in definitions of ECA. While traditional definitions based on volunteering, cultural activities and some forms of work are shared, there was greater ambivalence regarding other forms of paid work, caring, and faith-based activities.
2. There is considerable variation in the habitus of courses, both as described by students and in the different disciplinary and professional orientations of courses as described by staff. Valuing of student ECA is influenced both positively and negatively by the dispositions of staff and their disciplinary orientations.
3. There is considerable evidence that inter-generational cultural capital is influential in the dispositional stances of students to taking advantage of ECA. The influence of the parents’ own participation and dispositions towards voluntary and other forms of social engagement appears to be more important than parental education per se, but parental education is positively associated with the likelihood of their participation.
4. School experiences strongly influence the dispositions of students towards ECA.
5. While structural factors shape likelihood of participation, students exercise considerable agency in the ways they engage in ECA and in the identities they form in relation to both learner and employment communities of practice.
6. Some forms of paid employment are valued by both students and staff but tensions are reflected by both. The recognition of these tensions seems unlikely to be capable of resolving the dilemmas faced by staff and students alike.
7. The valuing of caring remains highly gendered among both staff and students and, with the exception of courses based on caring, this militates against it being regarded as of worth.
9.1 Discussion and recommendations
The lack of clear, or stable, definitions of ECA emerged from all three of our data sources as evidenced in the variations between prompted and unprompted responses. The qualitative data revealed multiple definitions and respondents changed and refined their definitions in the course of the interviews. Both staff and student data provided examples of activities that might be legitimately thought of as part of the curriculum. This instability of definition in part stems from the lack of any clear conceptualisation of curriculum in higher education more generally (Barnett & Coate, 2005), but also suggests that it is the activity itself that is valued for its possible connection to graduate futures, rather than where the activity was organised or its position in relation to curriculum. Both staff and students appeared to value the intrinsic characteristics of volunteering, for example, regardless of whether this was organised as part of community learning, featured in the curriculum, or was extra-curricular in the more traditional sense. This finding suggests the need for a clearer articulation of the qualities that might inhere in different sorts of activities and a recognition that The Higher Education Academy 91 the broad categories of work or volunteering or caring, for example, can involve radically different experiences. Benefits are not just a property of the activity as such, but pertain to the varied meanings staff and students imbue them with.
There are, however, limitations on the extent to which these meanings are open.
Both staff and students recognised the significance of time in relation to benefits and also recognised elements of constraint or freedom in choosing activities – work and caring being the most obvious examples.
Our second conclusion relates to these definitional matters since the ease with which recognition of ECA were integrated into the habitus was closely related to how staff understood the purpose of their courses and whether the orientation was introjected or projected, singular or generic. While students participated as legitimate peripheral participants in the discourse of the discipline/profession, they did not frame their narratives as strongly in relationship to disciplinary orientation. It is clear from students’ accounts, however, that the habitus of different courses (understood as durable patterns of thought and behaviour, resulting from internalisation of culture or objective social structures and the capitals valued in that field) varied between courses/disciplines/professions. Not all these differences were cultural. Some courses, mainly those where the profession strongly influenced the necessary nature of the student experience, were small, informal, and intimate. In other areas courses were much larger and the channels of interaction between students and staff were more impersonal.
This is not to deny the individual agency of staff, or the ways individuals could make a difference as was manifestly clear from the student interviews, but it is to suggest that higher education is not a unified field.
Taken together with our first findings, concerning lack of clarity of definition, we would suggest that the contribution of both the curriculum and ECA to graduate outcomes requires clearer articulation. Based on the clear disciplinary differences we would further suggest that this is best done by practitioners (academics, professionals, employers, and students) in their respective fields along the lines described by Barrie (2004, 2006). This work is a requirement for curricular change to properly recognise the extra-curricular and for the field to exemplify how it shapes and contributes to graduate futures. This could lead to a greater consistency in the recognition of the ECA in the field, as it is clear from the student and staff data that this recognition, and hence the potential for learning and enhanced graduate futures, is patchy and subject to individual variation.
Recommendation 1 Graduate outcomes should be properly debated and specified within the fields made up by the different disciplines/professions. This work should include considerations of both the curriculum and the extracurricular and should produce definitions of ECA relevant to the field.
The finding that parental participation is strongly associated with students’ engagement in ECA is important, since it means that some students are considerably advantaged particularly in relationship to traditional ECA. There have, of course, been huge debates both about the class nature of social capital generated in social networks and about the general decline in community and The Higher Education Academy 92 civic society activities (Putnam, 2000). The debate is too big to enter here, but we know that this sort of inter-generational capital advantages students and our research appears to confirm this. However, what our research also appears to suggest is that schools have done much positive work. If we take this finding alongside the insights of Yosso (2005), we think it is, therefore, sensible to recommend that higher education might pay closer attention to the capacities and capabilities that students bring with them from school and community since we know that inter-generational influenced activities are more likely to reinforce the status quo rather than challenge it. Moreover, we should endeavour to be sensitive to issues of time in relationship in the student lifeworld as it appears from this research, and from our previous work (Clegg & Bufton, 2008), that school continues to have salience for students in ways that staff with their more future-orientated timescapes (Adam, 1995, 2003) do not always recognise.
Recommendation 2 In recognising the contribution of ECA to the curriculum and to likely graduate outcomes, staff should consider ways appropriate to their field of allowing students opportunities to identify community cultural capital including that derived from school.
While we have emphasised the clear structural dimensions and intergenerational dimensions of participation in ECA and of the contribution to imagined graduate futures, it is absolutely clear that attention to agency and to the identity work of students in relationship to the communities of practice of work and learning are of profound importance. There is interesting theoretical work in the social sciences, notably by Archer (2007) in Making our Way though the World, that emphasises the active work associated with both social mobility and social immobility. Thomas and Quinn (2007) usefully remind us that intergenerational capital is a reciprocal not a one-way relationship. We would suggest, therefore, that we need further, more in-depth research that explores these issues of agency and identity more fully (see also Clegg, 2006).
Recommendation 3 More research is required to identify the active role of student agency in creating active learner and employment identities.
Our conclusions concerning employment undertaken out of economic necessity are hardly surprising. Our data provide positive examples from both student and staff about the ways in which the ways students integrate experiences into building a CV oriented towards graduate futures. There are also clear concerns about attendance and the relationship of course participation to success.