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Social capital: the new frontier in widening participation at universities

In an article for the Guardian's Higher Education Network, former Principal Professor Simon Gaskell and Vice-Principal for Student Experience, Teaching and Learning, Professor Rebecca Lingwood argue that if universities are to ensure all their graduates fulfil their potential, they will have to start equipping them with the social capital they need to get there. 

Monday 2 October 2017

QMUL students working on consultancy projects from SMEs and charities
QMUL students working on consultancy projects from SMEs and charities

UK universities have made progress with widening access to higher education in recent years. But while there are further advances to be made, there is an increasing realisation that focusing on entry to university is not enough. The combination of the opportunity to study and academic achievement doesn’t guarantee a good job. Evidence at Queen Mary University of London suggests that our graduates do not always succeed personally, nor make a societal contribution, to the extent that their talents and educational qualifications should enable.

QMUL is a Russell Group member based in the east end of London. Over half of our UK undergraduate students are local, 90 per cent come from state schools, 60 per cent are from an ethnic minority, half are in receipt of direct financial support from QMUL, and 27 per cent come from households where the annual taxable income is £10,000 or less.

Our graduates are certainly getting jobs, but they are not necessarily getting the right jobs to fulfil their potential or to meet their aspirations. Their achievements post-graduation may be limited by a deficit in social capital, or social networks, relative to their contemporaries from more advantaged backgrounds. The use of personal earnings as a measure of achievement post-graduation is reductionist, but, to the extent that the proxy is helpful, national findings are leading to the same conclusion.

Levelling the playing field

For the socially committed university, the conclusion is clear – we must take steps to eliminate the deficit in social capital. QMUL has adopted a new model for undergraduate education starting this year. Approximately 10 per cent of the curriculum in each year of study will be devoted to acquiring skills and developing experience that will enable our graduates to become leaders in their respective fields and to make a positive societal impact, regardless of their social or financial background.

The new modules cover many themes, including entrepreneurship, creative thinking, networking, communications, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural critical thinking and global perspectives, and all are academically demanding and subject to rigorous assessment by QMUL, even when they involve placements elsewhere. They are not an optional extra but integrated within all our degree programmes on a par with disciplinary modules.

The new bespoke modules also include partnership with graduate employers. One of these is with the civil service, and aims to equip students with the skills that civil servants need to support the government. Students will experience the work first-hand and have opportunities to talk to senior civil servants in a range of roles about what their jobs entail. Accommodating the needs of each student will involve individual tailoring of their programme to specific circumstances through a personal tutorship scheme.

More than soft skills

The fact that we may not fully understand all the components that make up the social capital that dictates success beyond university must not discourage us from action now. Improvements in communication and networking skills, combined with a greater ability to cross intellectual, cultural and national divides, will enhance personal success and achievement. We know within our own professional sector that many leading academics have succeeded and progressed further than others because of abilities to network effectively and to communicate and promote the quality of their intellectual achievements convincingly in a range of contexts.

Many universities will argue that they already provide extra-curricular opportunities to enhance these soft or transferrable skills – although the use of such terms implies that they lack academic status. For the disadvantaged student, perhaps with caring responsibilities or the imperative of part-time paid employment, however, extra-curricular activities are not an option.

We must instead make provision for the acquisition of such skills in a way that is available for all students, and which emphasises the academic and intellectual rigour of these components of the curriculum, as well as their relevance to future career prospects.

Prior to the adoption of the new model, polling of prospective and existing students showed overwhelming support – over 95 per cent – for the underlying concepts. We are also finding a real enthusiasm from employers and sense that the model will provide a way to significantly enhance the quality and diversity of their graduate-level workforces. The details of the new provisions will evolve with time and experience, but it is undoubtedly right that this university – and others – should approach this new frontier in widening opportunity with urgency and determination.

More information:

For media information, contact:

Neha Okhandiar
Public Relations Manager
Queen Mary University of London
email: n.okhandiar@qmul.ac.uk

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