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Despite these initiatives there is considerable debate about their effectiveness in delivering graduates with the attributes employers desire. This is in part because, as Yorke (2006) points out, there is a misunderstanding of what universities can deliver and those attributes that can only be cultivated by employers themselves in the specific context of employment. Barrie (2004, 2006), however, argues that there is evidence that in practice opportunities to develop the desired attributes are patchy and depend on enthusiastic teams or individuals so that good practice flourishes, but may also wane when projects end or teams are dispersed. Despite the national remit of PDP, there is good reason to think that embedding PDP in the curriculum is likely to be as patchy (Clegg & Bradley, 2006; Clegg & Bufton, 2008). The interest in ECA and The Higher Education Academy 11 graduate outcomes and employability thus needs to be set against this broader picture.
There is some policy level recognition that participation in ECA contributes to graduate outcomes as evidenced, among other indicators, by the Higher Education Academy commissioning this and other research (Stuart, 2008).
There is also some research (Blasko, 2002) that suggests: “involvement in extra-curricular activities was related to successful employment outcomes (especially for women)”. While both Barrie and Yorke among others acknowledge the possible relevance of extra-curricular in discussions of employability and graduateness, there is a relative lack of research specifically about ECA. One exception is work by Chia (2005) among accounting graduates.
She reports positive associations with interview success in a highly competitive context and focuses on the development of soft skills and emotional intelligence as the critical factors. Our research can, therefore, be seen in this broader context of a general concern with employability and graduateness, and increased sophistication in understanding how higher education might respond in delivering these outcomes. It seeks to redress the relative lack of specific attention to the role of ECA as such. Given the definition of employability Yorke (2006) adopts, paying attention to personal qualities, skilful practices and the ability to reflect on experience, there would seem to be a prima facie case for the benefits of ECA in contributing to graduate outcomes. However, how these benefits might come about or, indeed, if there is evidence that students can transfer their skills from one context (extra-curricular) to another (curricular or employment) seems much less certain.
2.2 Changing student profiles
As outlined above, the concern with graduate outcomes has coincided with the expansion of universities and the move to a mass system. However, these mass systems are by no means universal. Differential rates of access between socio-economic groups have proved resistant to change with the major expansion of higher education being fuelled by near universal middle-class participation (Reay et al., 2005). For middle-class students, going into higher education has become the norm rather than a choice. Nonetheless, with regard to absolute numbers, first generation entry into higher education has increased (Thomas & Quinn, 2007). Thomas and Quinn have made the case for specifically focusing on first-generation entrants and have pointed to the significance of family and prior educational experiences, and expectations of the parental generation in influencing student choice and expectations. Students from different family backgrounds predominate in different sorts of universities.
Parents of students from higher socio-economic groups make considerable investments in distinguishing between universities in order to secure places for their offspring at the most socially and academically prestigious institutions (Reay et al., 2005). While those students who are defined as ‘widening participation’ students (Archer, 2007) are concentrated in less well-funded and less prestigious institutions with greater proportions attending institutions that acquired university status post-1992. The stratified intake to institutions is officially recognised in the ways HEFCE widening participation benchmarking operates (Ashworth et al., 2004). Each university is given a distinct ‘benchmark’
While the data are complex, there is also some evidence that the private returns on higher education vary by social class with those starting out as middle-class benefiting more than their working-class peers (Adnett & Slack, 2007). This is not to deny that there is a benefit to those who pursue higher education compared to those who do not participate, rather that its benefits are stratified.
According to some measures overall, social mobility is falling in the UK rather than increasing, and what universities appear to achieve is the consolidation of status and the avoidance of downward social mobility rather than its extension (Machin & Vignoles, 2004). The debate about graduate outcomes, therefore, needs to be set in the context of the changing experiences of students at university, the differentials between universities, and different likely outcomes.
This is, of course, to be expected. If employability is the capacity to become employed, then graduate futures are mediated through the preferences of employers. We know that some employers restrict their choices to the graduates from a limited range of institutions and exercise conventional classbased social distinctions in choosing among students, in some cases even reverting to A-level points as an initial screening device, which is more socially retrogressive than degree classification.
These changes are more than just bald probabilities about position: they point to the likelihood of different student experiences and expectations. High levels of part-time employment, particularly among students from less privileged backgrounds, mean that for many students full-time study increasingly resembles part-time study. Studying increasingly has to be squeezed alongside the demands of work. In considering the meanings of ‘extra-curricular’ we need to be mindful, therefore, that the definition itself is open to debate. Some ECA are likely to be seen as economic necessity and calculation rather than personal development and voluntary. So while the general policy context of graduate outcomes and employability operates at the macro-level, we need to recognise the considerable levels of stratification within the system. This means that the benefits and experiences of ECA are likely to be complex. The meaning of ECA is likely to vary dependent on context and to extend beyond the traditional image of the full-time student choosing to take part in university sport, cultural or volunteering activities. In our original bid, therefore, we argued for recognising this complexity and for a recognition that many students now routinely work part-time, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds. Many less privileged students also choose to study while remaining at ‘home’ often for financial reasons. We, therefore, hypothesised that some of these home-based students may continue to participate in ‘local’ (i.e. non-university) ECA and that these might be particularly prevalent among faith groups from minority ethnic backgrounds. Women students, in particular, may also continue non-paid caring and other responsibilities (Moss, 2004). So the traditional view does not capture the diversity of ECA taking place, participation in them varies among different groups of student, and activities may not commonly be conceptualised as ECA.
A failure (by both students and staff) to conceptualise the full range of ECA that students engage with, whether out of a perceived choice or through necessity, as activities that provide opportunities for personal development means that The Higher Education Academy 13 students who engage in them may not be being encouraged to recognise their potential value. In order to unpack some of these complexities we, therefore, need to consider our overall theoretical approach before going on to describe our empirical study and findings.
3. A cultural capital approach The theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu have been widely used in research into higher education in order to illuminate the processes whereby educational inequalities might be maintained. Bourdieu argued that agents (or people) manoeuvre or struggle in pursuit of desirable resources within a ‘field’ or a social arena, with the position of each agent within the field being the result of the interaction between the agent’s ‘habitus’ and their ‘capital’ (Bourdieu, 1984). ‘Habitus’ is used by Bourdieu to refer to durable patterns of thought and behaviour, resulting from the internalisation of culture or objective social structures, i.e. the norms and practices and dispositions of particular social classes or groups, created and shaped by the interaction between structures (education, family, class), ‘fields’ and personal histories (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Capital refers to the knowledge, experience, connections and ownership of resources that enable individuals to succeed within a particular field, or to struggle within it, of which there are three forms: social, economic and cultural (Bourdieu, 1986). Bourdieu defined social capital as: “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 248) “made up of social obligations (‘connections’), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 243). Economic capital refers to an agent’s command over actual economic resources, while cultural capital refers to “all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation” (Bourdieu, 1977, p.
178) and takes three forms: objectified – owned cultural goods; embodied – cultural capital embodied in the individual, inherited via the family, including linguistic capital and “long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 243); and institutionalised – institutional recognition of an individual’s cultural capital (for example, academic qualifications).