«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 ...»
Reay et al. (2005) and Thomas and Quinn (2007) have drawn Bourdieu’s concepts as a way of thinking about the sorts of inherited cultural capital that ensure middle-class students are able to ‘choose’ the right universities (Ball et al., 2002). Considerable familial energy is invested in making the right distinctions within the field. Middle-class students are thus able to build on and consolidate various forms of capital through their choice and success at university (Ball et al., 2002; Reay et al., 2005). Thomas and Quinn (2007) in particular focus on generational issues in their exploration of first generation access to higher education. As we are interested in graduate outcomes, and how students might enhance and mobilise the social and cultural resources available to them through participation in ECA, a cultural capital approach seemed very useful. It highlights the differential access to valued cultural resources prior to university and also provides us with a way of thinking about The Higher Education Academy 14 how cultural and other forms of social capital might be enhanced in the process of participation. There are, however, some important caveats to adopting this approach. Reay (2004) has wisely cautioned against using particular theories as a form of window dressing rather than using them to think with in the process of doing the research.
In our original bid we argued for a cultural capital approach. Some opportunities for volunteering and other ECA may be embedded into the curriculum as part of PDP (Higher Education Academy, 2007), but there are, nonetheless, likely to be considerable differences in the ways in which different activities are culturally recognised and realised as cultural capital. While there have been some pedagogical interventions to encourage students to view paid work as a source of learning and contribution to graduate outcomes (Smith et al., 2004), ECA have traditionally been viewed as cultural, voluntary and sporting activities organised within the university through student societies. We know, however, that these traditional ECA are differentially accessed and valued, mirroring the general class bias in the sorts of activities that contribute to the formation of general social and cultural capital (Coffield, 1997; Schuller, 2000; Kauffman & Gabler, 2004; Kimura et al., 2006). Volunteering, participation in structured leisure activities, and the development of extensive social networks remain largely middle-class activities. We argue on purely theoretical grounds, therefore, that students from less privileged backgrounds are unlikely to have had experiences that would encourage them to view participation in activities outside the curriculum as a way of enhancing their future success. These highly resilient forms of differential participation in activities, which build social and cultural capital, influence perceptions of the value of ECA when students enter The Higher Education Academy 15 university. Our argument, therefore, is that we need to explore what students are actually doing, and how their activities are conceptualised, named, and valued by them, and how they are recognised or not recognised by staff and in the formation of the curriculum. It is arguable that if some forms of ECA such as employment are not recognised or valued and/or become a barrier to participation in the curriculum then rather than having a beneficial relationship to graduate outcomes, they may in fact detract from them.
As will become evident in the findings from the student interviews, individual habitus, mediated through institutional habitus, does not simply influence how ECA are conceptualised and valued. Many researchers have found that nontraditional learners, for example, do not for the main part simply passively accept their circumstances but act as agents of their own action, challenging both existing orthodoxies and institutional practices (Gallacher et al., 2002;
Leathwood & O’Connell, 2003). In order to address this more active role of agents we have used Lave and Wenger’s (1991) ideas of situated learning and ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ and Wenger’s (1998) ideas of communities of practice to explain the experiences of learners in higher education.
Communities of practice refers to the process of learning that occurs and
shared practices that emerge when people who have common goals interact:
Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations.
These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise. It makes sense, therefore to call these kinds of communities, communities of practice. (Wenger, 1998, p. 45) Lave and Wenger argue that learners initially become involved in communities of practice through peripheral engagement, which may enable individuals to try out a new identity on an experimental basis, allowing them to transit from one social milieu to another with minimal risks, and “gradually assemble a general idea of what constitutes the practice of the community” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 95). Through this participation, the formation of a new learner identity becomes possible whereby “we know who we are by what is familiar, understandable, usable, negotiable” (Wenger, 1998, p. 153). This leads to eventual full participation in the community of practice, enabling learning to occur. Legitimate peripheral participation, therefore, provides a theoretical description of how newcomers become experienced members of a community of practice, construct their identities through these communities, and then continuously create their shared identity through engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities. Communities of practice (CoP) are organised around some particular area of knowledge and/or activity, within which members are involved in a set of relationships over time (Lave & Wenger,
1991) giving members a sense of joint identity. As will be evidenced below, participation in ECA facilitated participation in CoP, which, in turn, resulted in the formulation of clear (although at times overlapping) student identities. These identities influenced the ECA each student chose to participate in and which they chose to avoid or ignore as they were considered of little value with regard to supporting further participation and moving from peripheral to full participation.
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4. Research context and site In keeping with our interests our research study site is one with a large number of students from non-privileged backgrounds. There are of course interesting questions that could be asked in more privileged sites; particularly whether ECA contribute to graduate outcomes among socially advantaged groups who already have access to high levels of socially approved cultural capital and can reasonably expect to reap high returns as regards graduate outcomes. In some ways this might be considered a purer test of the case for the additionality of ECA for graduate outcomes. However, our interests, as described above, are conceptual and analytical in relationship to how different ECA are conceptualised and valorised. We were interested, therefore, in a case study site that had large numbers of home-based students and students for whom working was likely to be a necessity. Our selection of Leeds Metropolitan University, a large, urban university (with over 52,000 students and 3,500 staff) with a polytechnic past that recruits significant numbers of its students from its locality and region, was therefore an obvious choice. Indeed it was precisely our experiences of working in the institution that gave rise to our interest and research questions. The University is the most popular destination for Leeds Local Authority resident students, especially those from the most deprived neighbourhoods, as the following table comparing our case study institution with its neighbouring Russell Group institution shows.
Source: Action on Access analysis of HESA data and Index of Multiple Deprivation Note: These figures represent only those students who are on first-time first degree courses (Leeds Metropolitan University, 2008).
Moreover, our case study institution places significant value on ECA and in particular volunteering (among both staff and students) and sport as contributing to the university experience. The University has a community partnership and volunteering programme whose statement for students reads
More to the point – why not volunteer? It’s not just about charity and giving but about working together for mutual benefit, a two-way thing.
There are so many ways in which we can help in our local community and so many organisations whose success depends on the work of volunteers. Sometimes our skills can be of great value to an underresourced organisation, or sometimes it’s just an extra pair of hands and a bit of enthusiasm that’s needed.
We firmly believe that by actively engaging in our local communities we can help to make a real difference, and don’t forget that as part of the community in Leeds (whether temporarily or permanently), we also feel the benefit of the array of community work that is taking place in our city.
The University has included volunteering and community partnership at the heart of its Corporate Plan. We are members of an ethical and engaged university which is aiming to contribute to the personal and social development of its stakeholders including communities within the city and beyond. Community partnerships and volunteering are means by which we achieve these goals.
What’s in it for you?
• It’s fun – and part of the enjoyment lies in doing something useful for other people
• You can gain valuable experience and broaden your horizons
• You can meet people and gain access to new networks The Higher Education Academy 18 You can gain new skills or practice existing ones and you might get • some free training
• There are real benefits to enhancing your employability.
Volunteering shows prospective employers that you’re committed and motivated and provides insight into different areas of work
• There are academic advantages too. Volunteering can give you ideas for projects and you might be able to get real life experience of the skills and knowledge that you are learning on your course.
• As well as being great for your personal and professional development the best thing is that you’ll probably find it extremely rewarding and satisfying!