(This is Part II of III; for the ‘parent’ page, click here.)
There are a lot of different reasons why people go to university, from a desire to develop intellectually, to learn more about a subject, to gain access to certain – or certain kinds of – jobs, as well as things like pressure from schools, family, or peers. Perhaps their parents really want them to go (and maybe the children do, too) or they want to work as a social scientist, nurse, or engineer. The list of reasons is long and varied, and people apply their own mixtures of personal and external rationales.
For some people who study, going to university is very much a conscious decision, a want to reach something that having a degree might offer. For others, and this is sociologically interesting, they may not decide to go at all, they just go. For them, university can be a ‘natural progression’ after school, and alternatives either don’t cross their minds or aren’t seen as options. I want to start by looking at this group first. That might seem odd, seeing as this set of blogs is concerned with those who don’t study but perhaps could or should. What I want to do here is draw a comparison between two ‘extremes’, in a sense. I’ll start with those who can study and go unthinkingly, and look at some things that can be seen to influence them. I’ll then contrast that group with people who perhaps might never think about going to university or think they could go.
There is research in the UK that shows how children from certain schools are almost guaranteed to progress to a university degree. Looking further within this, the culture in many of those schools can be heavily geared towards accessing higher education. Teachers might assume that their pupils are planning to take a degree, and there may be a great deal of support, information and expectation to do so. The academic culture in those schools, too, can focused heavily on high grades and there might be stringent requirements for entry. As we saw in the previous blog, some people, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, have lower chances of doing well at school. They would also be less likely gain entry to selective schools. This understanding of individual school cultures is useful because it begins to show how some young people can be ‘funnelled’ into university, and this can partly explain why going on to a degree could be automatic.
Another important consideration is the family and peer environment. If people around you have been to university, is more likely to feature in everyday conversations and as such will be less of a mythical unknown. (Parents ‘in the know’ can also increase their children’s chances of getting into one of those university-oriented schools.) In Germany, for example, the data shows that having two graduate parents makes it very likely that you will go to university, while having none makes it far less so. The term they use for this second group is ‘hochschulfern’, which translates as ‘far from university’: if your parents have both studied, you are both metaphorically and statistically much closer to doing so. The school system there is also highly segregated in that only a third of children go to academic upper secondary schools and of these about three quarters go to university; those elsewhere in the school system may essentially be excluded from university pathways by their early teens. This can be seen elsewhere, in that those with vocational and occupational qualifications often aren’t able to access higher education unless they go back to school to ‘upgrade’ their certificates. This is not always possible, as those who have families can’t necessarily give up their jobs to go back into education, and in some countries there is no tradition of entering university later in life. Where this is the case, the door is permanently closed unless you go when you are 18-19. Japan is one such country, although they have a very high number of their national year groups (over 95%) who have the option of applying for a university place; about half of them do.
We can perhaps begin to see what being ‘far from university’ might look like. As the opposite image of the ‘top’ schools, if you attended one where very few (or no) people went to university, the idea to do so might be distant or even absent. If you came from a family where nobody had ever studied and/or you lived in a neighbourhood where a tiny percentage of people went to university, this again would make it less of a clear option. There could be strong barriers to going, such as little information about what it’s like, how you get in, and ‘what it’s for’ – what the benefits are – are less likely to be available; the tangible goal in an apprenticeship is more obvious than ‘graduate recruitment’. Financial considerations are also important, in that tuition fees (where they exist) and the cost of living have to be met. As I pointed out here, fees are more likely to discourage the poorest from studying. For some people, particularly those with the ‘wrong’ qualifications or who missed the window when they were young, university can simply be off the menu. It may be the case that for these people, non-university routes were the ‘natural progression,’ and going to university is an unnatural one.
There is, of course, a great deal of variation in the picture being painted here, both within and between countries. In South Korea, for example, 63% of the young people study for a degree, so those with a university education are in the majority, while in Mexico it is less than 25%. There can also be a great deal of unevenness between genders, geographical areas, and so on. What we can see, though, is that going to university is not necessarily a choice. For some, being enrolled on a degree just happens, while for others it never features as a possibility and the automatic ‘choice’ can be something else. You also have the exceptions, those who defy the odds. These could be people ‘far’ from university who nevertheless manage to cross that divide, or those who are very ‘close’ but take an alternative path. There are also going to be all sorts of combinations between the ‘furthest’ and the ‘closest’. But what we can see is that ‘wanting’ (and not wanting) to go to university can be very dependent on context and background. This further compounds the difficulties in using school grades to select potentially successful students, examined earlier. In short, there are some people who could study but might be overlooked by universities because their grades aren’t strong. It is also the case that for a selection of those who have the ability to study, the actual possibility may be invisible and/or permanently unreachable.