Class-wash, capital and social mobility: critiquing corporate investment in widening participation

Another critical look at widening participation. This time I look at how the big corporates are involved and how the social mobility initiatives they support serve to legitimize their own interests whilst neutralising a political language of class.

“It’s all about class…” Dennis Skinner.

‘We do not believe in prizes for all. Whilst one can learn from the experience of the journey, ultimately there is often only one winner.’  Tony Sewell

I argued in an earlier post that the logic of selecting up a limited number of ‘non-traditional’ students for access to elite universities had deep parallels with the old logic of the ladder, the 11+ entrance exam and the scholarship boys and girls of the 1940s and 50s. At the crux of this critique is the argument that these programmes, despite the undoubted good they do at an individual level, also function as a social alibi for the universities involved. There is, however, another social alibi at work: the major financial banks and consultancy firms of the City of London are deeply embroiled in funding a whole machinery of widening participation organizations and programmes and we need to ask why and think critically about what they are doing.

What organizations am I talking about? The list is long – the Social Mobility Foundation, upReach, Generating Genius, Future First, The Brokerage City Link, Inspiring the Future, My Big Career… These organizations, primarily based in London, but increasingly expanding outwards, offer a heady mix of activities to schools and their students – talks from professionals, mentoring, special access to work experience, summer schools and so on. Often, though by no means always, accessing these programmes is in itself academically selective and the logic behind them, can be competitive. Take for example the description of programmes offered by Generating Genius, who offer a range of aspiration raising activities around STEM subjects:

“‘The programmes we offer are intended to be challenging,’ says Dr Sewell. ‘The students are expected to maintain a high standard of self-discipline, behaviour and academic performance. ‘We do not believe in prizes for all. Whilst one can learn from the experience of the journey, ultimately there is often only one winner.”

Sewell has close links to Boris Johnson and headed up his London Schools Excellence Fund, so there should be little surprise that his approach to WP activities is based on a heavily individualized, discourse of aspiration as part of a fierce social competition. We might not like the framing, but once again in a zero-sum sense, these programmes make a difference to people’s lives – they encourage students to apply to elite universities who would otherwise be less likely to gain a place and evaluations of these programmes shows this. Moreover, specifically in the case of Generating Genius, who could argue that we don’t need more people of colour and women working in science and engineering? Again – my point here is not to criticize the value for individuals of these programmes or the importance of having greater ‘access’ to professions for marginalized groups and organizations which encourage this. What we have to ask is what structural function does this serve and who is gaining here?

If we look at the financial backing and the ‘partners’ of many of these organizations, it quickly becomes clear that the major City institutions are backing these initiatives seriously – JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, Deloitte, Unilever, the list goes on. In some cases, this is explicit to the aims and purposes of the organizations in question, as with upReach, who explicitly target jobs in finance and management.

This is a serious business – these organizations are investing significant amounts of money and employee time in these initiatives. KPMG is perhaps a particularly clear example of this, spending £6.2 on community contributions in 2013-14, with a strong focus on social mobility (their pre-tax profit was £414m that year, but hey). They are also particularly strong in offering an apprenticeship scheme for school-leavers, but as one of my interviewees responded all is not what it seems:

And of course, the other thing that we’ve not done in this country, we’ve never developed a good technical alternative to higher education. And when I hear now, governments banging on about higher apprenticeships- they’re not there! Students come to me and say, “David, where are the higher apprenticeships website, couldn’t find anything, it’s crap.” And I say “Yeah, it’s crap.” “Couldn’t find anything on the website and when I do get it to work, there’s nothing there.” The message they’re getting is, this is a wonderful option to higher education- No it’s not! There are a few marquee things like KPMG, Deloitte, BT that gets 1000 applicants for one place. I mean this is rubbish you know. And I get on my email, someone from Credit Suisse will say we’ve got this great internship, immediately I get worried I see the word “internship” – what’s that? Is it money, or what is it, where does it lead? And it says, we want 300 UCAS points, so what they’re saying is that we don’t want you to go to uni, we want you to come to us and then we might fund you to go part-time, but we still want you to have at least 3 B’s at A-level

David, HE and Careers Adviser (my emphasis).

The crux of what I want to get at here is the point in bold: ‘this is rubbish’. It is not that the scheme in itself is not, on paper, a good one, but that this is an impossible solution for most of the students he sees in the sixth forms he works. Most people simply will not benefit, and those that do have to pass a substantial academic barrier to do so. But the structural logic runs deeper. What is also being re-framed here is the jobs students from marginalized groups should aspire to do and attain. Why ‘higher’ apprenticeships? What is wrong with a simple apprenticeship? Yes we need more ‘diverse’ professions, but there is an implicit de-valuation of non-middle-class employment going on here. I am not arguing for a return to some fairy tale land of full employment in manufacturing – there was no fairy tale. But the undertones of this discourse carry the leaden weight and symbolic violence of class stigmatization. In purely concentrating on class in terms of ‘access’ for a selected few, the political nature of class as a collective struggle is neutralized and jobs which do not fit into this category are de-valued.

For KPMG, Milburn’s report on social mobility and access to the professions directly call into question the legitimacy and ‘fairness’ of their recruitment processes and KPMG acknowledges this. What is never on the table is any question of the work these large corporate funders do and whether or not we actually support this. I was told a few years ago by a young white middle-class person I met at a wedding that ‘the hardest thing’ she had to do in her job at KPMG was tell people who had worked in council jobs for many years that they had to leave/were being sacked. Their response was ‘What right have you got to come in here and tell me to leave? I’ve been here 30 years…’ We have the phrase ‘green-wash’ and ‘pink-wash’ to describe how LGBT rights and investment in Green programmes are used to cover-up other forms of oppression and inequality. Perhaps it is time that we begin to think about ‘class-wash’.

What I mean by this is that the major corporate financial backers have an interest in supporting widening participation and their funding does have positive impacts. Their interest is immediate and has to do with tackling the image that they are in some way involved in producing inequality at the point of recruitment to their organizations. Anything else is off the table. The entire discourse surrounding social mobility which is pushed by central government, and much of this was bedded in under New Labour and continued under the coalition, allows no space for a discussion of the actual everyday social and political implications of the existence of investment banks and so forth in the first place. In education the fact of class inequalities in ‘attainment’ and access to university is openly acknowledged and discussed. By discussing these inequalities in terms of social mobility and access, the politics of class are kept hidden and the institutions legitimize themselves in relation to this narrow understanding of inequality.

The issue is with the framing of the solutions to the problem – the new wave of NGO-run measures, of which WP initiatives are only one, to ‘tackle’ the issue of social mobility is deeply damaging to a left-wing approach to dealing with inequality. Social mobility and WP measures are providing these organizations with another ‘social alibi’ but in doing so they also make it impossible to talk about any other conception of society. Class-wash covers these organizations in the short-term by showing that they take the issue of ‘access’ seriously. It also distracts from the deeper structural violence by framing the problem in such a way that any other alternative seems impossible. Politically the language of class is neutralised, pushed into a shallow, safe and strictly de-limited context of ‘access’.

From a left perspective we need to be absolutely clear about what is going on here ideologically, even if we support and work with these organizations to gain immediate benefit for young people in the short-term. In short we need to be clinically pragmatic but talk politically in a language of class which moves us away from individual aspiration. Quite simply, individual ‘aspiration’ is a blind alley for the left, as has been discussed elsewhere this week. Corbyn’s election campaign has transformed the shape of political debate in a way which simply could not have been predicted. We should be absolutely clear that talking about social mobility is not the way forward. The corporate backers of class-wash should be worried however, the wheels on the Blairite bandwagon which helped keep this discourse in place could be about to fall off…

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