Review: EconTEAching Session 2: Widening Participation – Mind the gap between schools and universities, by Dr Stefania Paredes Fuentes (University of Warwick)

The second session of the #EconTEAching chats organised by CTaLE and the Department of Economics at Warwick took place on 13th May 2020.

Sam McLoughlin from globalbridge talked about “Widening Participation: Mind the gap between schools and universities” and shared his experience in working with young people from under-privileged backgrounds. The conversation was chaired by Dr. Stefania Paredes Fuentes (University of Warwick). The session live-stream can be found on the CTaLE YouTube channel.

The session’s chat was booming with questions and comments so we have tried to summarise them here under three topics:

How to reach out to young people from under-represented backgrounds

One of the most common widening participation questions is what is the best way to reach young people? When shall we start engaging young people with Economics? A-levels? Primary school? Y7/Y8? Chat participants suggested as early as possible and mentioned the example of STEM experience. At the very least students should learn about financial literacy.

However, to engage very young people with economics, we need to get into things they are interested already, whether this is social media, football or others. Economics is relevant for everything and we need to convey this message. For instance, economics is about how people make choices and we can use this to move away from the stereotypical “economics is about money and banks”.

The lack of diversity in economics means that the discipline lacks role models for students to get inspiration from. “You have to see it to be it” was one of the key messages from the chat. It is easier to inspire young people when they can recognise themselves in those trying to inspire them.

First generation academics offer an invaluable social and cultural capital in addition to the subject specific knowledge that needs to be used when designing widening participation strategies. Some also noticed that PhD students are great at engaging with young people. This can be an excellent opportunity for them to get a (paid) opportunity and acquire skills that may help in their future career and can help academics’ efforts to reach out to young people from different backgrounds.

Reaching out to schools

How do we get schools to make space for events about economics? Universities need to engage with the local school community. Schools are under a lot of time pressure and teachers are over-stretched, so universities need to find a way for their activities to connect directly with their curriculum, consider what after-school events are offered, create material that teachers can access as part of the national curriculum, and perhaps let’s start thinking out of the box. Can economics be on BBC BiteSize or similar? There are also some charities and other organisations working with young kids that they listen to.

Students are not going to be willing to take a risk on a subject they know little about, as demonstrated by the fact that they are not taking Economics at AS level. The lack of familiarity with the subject means that they may struggle to see the direct link between economics and a future career. Engagement with schools can help to make economics known and feel less risky.

It may be worth thinking on how to engage with parents too, as they play a crucial role in young’s people career decisions. Parents may already feel like going to university is a risky decision and current high students’ debt may contribute towards this. However, Economics graduates do extremely well in the job market and we need to be able to convey this.

The introduction of Economics Apprenticeships (e.g. Bank of England, Government Economic Service) has been well-received; however, these tend to be very competitive.

University entry requirements for widening participation

Universities have introduced ‘contextualised offers’ for widening participation purposes. However, there are still many challenges to be addressed, and the cancellation of all A-level exams this year may affect students from under-represented backgrounds more. Participants commented on a variety of these issues.

The predicted grade system seems to work against students from under-represented backgrounds as they often get underpredicted grades. There is also the problem of the achievement gap between ‘good’ and ‘less-good’ schools for otherwise similarly talented students. How can universities fight these biases and attract talent that otherwise would go unnoticed?

Something that was considered is that even under contextualised offers, for some higher ranking universities the offer is still very high: AAB and some require A* in Maths.

Students can use their personal statements to show their potential, but schools with more resources (such as private schools) can and do coach their students to write good personal statements, which make these less reflective of students’ talents.

Other proposals were about taking affirmative action in the UCAS applications, but a lot of the discussion also considered moving away from traditional methods and look at the students’ broader achievements beyond grades (and personal statements).

Finally, while there was some discussion in whether it would be beneficial for students (and universities) to shift the university academic year to Jan-Dec, we need to consider the downsides of students been outside education for almost one year.

The organisers would like to thank Sam and all the participants for such an engaging discussion which has inspired future conversations on widening participation. 

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