The predictable problems of university Affirmative Action policies

Last year, upon reading a university Principal’s boasts about lowering access grades for ‘disadvantaged pupils’, I wrote a response highlighting the dangers of such an approach. I listed a number of concerns including:

  • It assumes that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not academically able

Such approaches assume that a ‘disadvantaged’ student is less able to achieve than their ‘advantaged’ counterpart: a rather insulting assumption. For example, the Principal states that ‘we think it is as tough, and demonstrates as much potential, for a disadvantaged student to get three Bs at Higher as it is for another student to get two As and two Bs’. No evidence or justification is given to support this assertion. Indeed, even if we accept that disadvantaged students are less able to achieve, one still has to wonder how much we are helping them by giving them the message that they can only achieve if grades are lowered for them.

  • Even if disadvantaged students were not as academically able, lowering grades does not help to address any of the causes of any academic problems

Students (‘advantaged’ or ‘disadvantaged’) may not achieve the necessary grades to gain access to university for a number of personal reasons, including lack of motivation, lack of interest, and unfashionable though it may be to mention it, lack of ability. Lowering grades to allow them into university does not address any of these problems. Even if none of these personal circumstances apply, and students are failing to attain entrance grades due to situational factors (a belief that Affirmative Action policies seem to favour), it is difficult to see how accepting them into an institution of higher learning without changing their circumstances will help them. It seems much more likely that this will put more strain on the student, potentially damaging their wellbeing, and increasing the likelihood of drop-out.

  • It assumes that going to university is what is best for these students

These policies are based on an assumption that everyone ‘should’ go to university. However I’m not aware of any discussion regarding whether it is actually best for all to go to university. Gaining a generic undergraduate degree, which brings a 4-year commitment (plus the associated student debt), and no guarantee of a job at the end of it, is not necessarily in everyone’s best interests.

To be clear, lowering entrance grades for certain students is not a policy that is unique to this university: the Principal’s boast was that they were ‘leading the way’. Other universities have followed suit – with what appears to be little justification, other than pressure to be seen to be accepting more disadvantaged students on to courses. As I noted previously, a cynic might suggest that the fate of the students may not be of great interest to the universities once they are through the doors and the quotas met. Indeed, we could argue that this must surely be the case since pushing unqualified students into a situation that they are, by definition, unqualified for, is fairly likely to lead to failure.

Imagine my lack of surprise then when I saw the results of a report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing that university dropout rates have risen by two thirds over the past 5 years, with the largest increase in the UK (not just Scotland) being shown at the aforementioned Principal’s university. Here, the dropout rate rose by 8.6 percentage points from 3.5% in 2011-2012 to 12.1% in 2016-17. Of course, this rise could be associated with any number of factors, but it may be more than a coincidence that the universities with the highest drop-out rates are the ‘less selective institutions that generally do the heavy lifting on social mobility’. Indeed, 1 in 10 ‘disadvantaged’ students drop out of university after the first year compared with 1 in 20 who do not come into that category.

At this stage, one might expect questions to be asked regarding the wisdom of dropping grades to bring students in to the university. However, such questions would not be well-received, so instead, the response from universities appears to focus on ways to make the experience easier for the students, for example, by recruiting more student advisors. While this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself – and of course might benefit students who are struggling with personal or social issues – it is making the assumption that lack of support is the main reason that people are leaving.

Alternatively, the response from the Office for Students is that it’s the courses that are the problem rather than the students. However, this does rather raise questions about why some students are able to attain. Again, the elephant in the room is the suggestion that some students may simply not be academically able enough to cope with the demands of university (and for the record, that is ok!).

As noted earlier, university is not necessarily for everyone, and failure to accept that will inevitably lead to a situation where administrators have no option but to manipulate grades to achieve their quotas. This is an option that many of my colleagues might (privately) admit already happens – albeit on an informal basis – with many of us facing pressure ‘not to let students fail’. However, should this become formalised (an option that I can genuinely envisage happening), one can imagine the impact not only for the education system, but also for the students themselves. How will these students feel about themselves, knowing that the only way they can pass is to have grades lowered for them? Moreover – how will the other students feel, knowing that others can be awarded the same grade as them despite being unable to achieve the necessary standards?

Arguably, these questions speak to a larger problem within society – the current fashion for believing that everyone should receive the same outcome (e.g. acceptance to university, good grades etc) regardless of merit. While it could be argued that equality of outcome goals such as this are well-intentioned, we really have to question who such policies benefit – when it certainly isn’t the students, or society at large.

Before I come across as being too negative however, I want to highlight that my initial post was an argument for programmes based on equality of opportunity principles – programmes which give disadvantaged students additional support to ‘bring them up’ to the level of their more advantaged counterparts. Such programmes assume that this extra support should help to compensate for difficulties that may have prevented the student from achieving their full academic potential. In addition to this, students are also schooled on the relevant personal, social and academic skills that would allow them to thrive at university, therefore addressing some of the social problems that might have contributed to their difficulties.

Furthermore, lest I be accused of discriminating against disadvantaged students, I would also like to highlight that I have worked for a number of the aforementioned Widening Access programmes. Indeed I would even consider myself a champion of ‘equality of opportunity’ policies, believing, as I do, that all students who are qualified, and motivated, to attend university, should be able to do so. My wish is that policy-makers, universities and politicians would follow similar principles, instead of setting increasing numbers of students up for failure by attempting to push them through a system they are not ready for. Ultimately, in such cases, the only people who suffer are the students, while the administrators and politicians revel in the ‘success’ of their quota-based box-ticking exercises.

 

 

 

 

Why Influencers are ruining society

‘That’s a little extreme!’ I hear you say, but think about it: Influencer culture is driven by, and rewards, self-obsession.  It also encourages shallowness, materialism, misinformation and ignorance; none of which is conducive to creating a well-functioning society. Pre-social media, Influencers would have been dismissed as narcissists or fakes with too much time on their hands.  However, since the late 2010’s, such people have been rewarded with media fame and gifts ranging from cosmetic samples to luxury holidays. The problem is that rewarding any behaviour reinforces and encourages it (as anyone who has used treats to train a dog knows). Similarly, others see these rewards and understandably want a piece of the action. As a result we have a growing number of aspiring ‘Influencers’ who will emulate the aforementioned behaviours in order to receive the same rewards.

The most disheartening aspect of this is that a recent survey showed that ‘Social Media Influencer’ and ‘Youtuber’ came second and third place in a list of what children wanted to be when they grew up. Ultimately, who can blame the children – they see beautiful people in exclusive places being given free products for taking nice pictures of themselves – who wouldn’t want such a ‘blessed’ life?! The problem is that once we start to base our worth on external sources (such as approval from followers or brands), we are at their mercy. As the old adage goes, happiness comes from within, so once we start to rely on external sources for validation, any perceived decrease in support from them will be seen as a personal failure.

Being judged by others is particularly problematic when our worth is defined by our looks. Indeed, many Influencers admit to taking thousands of pictures of themselves, with hours, and sometimes days, being spent critiquing every single picture, searching for flaws in order to weed out any that are less than perfect. Clearly as well as encouraging self-obsession, this can lead to an overly critical way of viewing one’s body, with body dissatisfaction being a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders. Unfortunately, this dissatisfaction is not only limited to the Influencers themselves, it also spreads to viewers of the images, who are bombarded with often manipulated photos produced by people who have the time and the tools to create ‘perfect’ images.

Worryingly, even ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ Influencers follow a similar pattern. Certainly in relation to fitness, the emphasis still seems to be on the appearance associated with being fit rather than being healthy. Again, prioritising appearance can lead to problems related to body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and exercise obsession. The damage also comes from the advice the Influencers give: for example, as well as the aforementioned disorders, a similar illness associated with an obsession with ‘clean eating’ has developed in recent years. We certainly don’t have to look far to see Influencers extolling the virtues of clean eating, usually with no relevant qualifications or knowledge to back up their claims. Since they are not subject to the checks and standards that professionals are, they are free to disseminate their opinions under the guise of advice.

Here, the companies that support Influencers carry the burden of responsibility. By using, and promoting, individuals who spread misinformation, they are complicit in the damage caused by this misinformation. Similarly, they are also promoting the self-obsessed, materialistic lifestyle associated with the Influencer industry. While clearly, the goal of these companies is to sell products (to the ‘fools’ who don’t dedicate their lives to becoming Influencers!), they can choose who they reward with free gifts. While perhaps they don’t have time to create the perfect ‘insta-worthy’ image to promote the products, I for one, would prefer gifts to go to those who spend their time helping others (think of our emergency service workers, NHS workers, carers, volunteers etc), and would support any company that similarly prioritised such people.

So what do we have to do if we want to ‘save’ society? First, as consumers, we need to stop following Influencers. After all, if they have no followers, there will be no incentive for companies to support them. We need to call out the misinformation they promote: nutritionists, doctors, psychologists and healthcare professionals all need to counter the pseudo-‘experts’ with evidence-based facts. We also need to boycott the companies that use Influencers; by putting our money where are mouths are, we can show companies that we won’t support those who encourage such a damaging industry. Alternatively, we can support companies that gift to people who dedicate their time to helping others (therefore rewarding kind and positive behaviour). Ultimately, the power lies with us: we need to think the kind of society we want for ourselves and our children, and fight to create it.

 

 

 

 

Heterodox Academy

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I am delighted to announce that I am now a member of the Heterodox Academy. The Heterodox Academy is a relatively new organisation whose aim is to increase viewpoint diversity within academia. This is an issue I feel very strongly about, as in recent years I’ve seen amongst both students and staff, a noticeable decline in (and tolerance towards) differing viewpoints within higher education. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because a university education is traditionally meant to introduce people to challenging and difficult ideas. Increasingly, it seemed to me, that an ‘industry’ that used to be known for tolerance towards different perspectives, was actually starting to dictate what we ‘were allowed’ to think.

The problem is that whenever group-think exists, not only can it become difficult to challenge the popular narrative, it can also be difficult to even conceive of alternative perspectives.  While clearly, this is problematic in itself, it is particularly damaging when it occurs in education. How can we develop and learn if we are not subject to different viewpoints and perspectives? We also learn through making mistakes, so if we are never challenged or questioned, how can we update our thinking? Similarly, how can we function in our every-day lives (outwith academia) if we are unable to cope with unfamiliar, or different, viewpoints? We should be able to logically and rationally challenge viewpoints we disagree with, and we can only do that if we willing to engage with them.

While previously, being exposed to new knowledge was one of the primary aims of higher education, increasingly students are demanding that ideas (and people) they disagree with be shut down, rather than challenged with thoughtful and reasoned argument. Unfortunately, they don’t have good role models in this regard, as some of their professors are guilty of the same. Indeed, we only need to look at our public ‘role models’ in the form of our politicians and leaders to see that ability to deal civilly and coherently with opposing viewpoints is uncommon. Regardless of this, we should expect more from ‘educated’ people, and should aspire to better than the ‘Trumpian’ style of ‘debate’.

Ultimately, I feel that education is not only about learning, it should all be about developing our capacity to think, while also becoming well-balanced and productive citizens with strong and resilient personalities. We need students (and citizens) who are able to calmly and thoughtfully deal with challenges, rather than running away from them – or acting with anger and aggression.  As should be clear now from what I’ve said, one of the ways to do this is to expose students to unfamiliar and disquieting ideas. Only then are they able to develop the tools to be able to deal with them healthily and productively.

In this post, I have focussed on the importance of viewpoint diversity for students in higher education, but it is also crucial for society as a whole. I will discuss this (probably at some length) at a later date, but the Heterodox Academy also have a very readable summary on their website. Please take some time to have a look at their resources, and consider giving them some support.

 

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Worth So Much More

I’m very proud to have been involved with No1 Magazine’s Body Campaign #worthsomuchmore.

This is something that I feel very passionate about (as readers of my blog will know!), and in this article, I have offered some advice to help readers work towards feeling better about themselves (mostly by focussing on things other than appearance!).

I think the No1 Team (and Ida who wrote the article) deserve a great deal of credit for approaching the ‘body image’ issue in a different way from how it is usually discussed in the media.

 

Publication in British Psychological Society’s ‘Educational and Child Psychology’ Special Issue

I have recently had some more of my PhD research published in a special edition of the BPS’ ‘Educational and Child Psychology’ journal. The theme of the edition was ‘Research in Schools’ and my article highlighted the importance of identification with the school for young people’s psychological wellbeing.

Specifically, we found that identification with (or attachment to) the school helped protect young people from developing psychological problems up to one year later. In contrast, identification with other groups did not have a significant impact on the young people’s mental health.

These findings highlight the unique position that education practitioners are in to influence, and protect, young people’s psychological wellbeing. This knowledge is worth capitalising upon, particularly given the current emphasis on Health and Wellbeing in the Curriculum for Excellence, as well as the SNP government’s commitment to improving young people’s mental health.

To view the paper, please see:

Miller, K., Wakefield, J. R. H., & Sani, F. (2018). Identification with the school predicts better mental health amongst high school students over time. Educational and Child Psychology Special Edition, 35 (2), 21-30.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328942485_Identification_with_the_school_predicts_better_mental_health_amongst_high_school_students_over_time

 

Putting things off… BBC discussion about procrastination

I was delighted to again be invited to contribute to BBC Scotland’s Personal Best programme; this time discussing a phenomenon that most of us are familiar with: procrastination! In the programme I chat to Gillian Russell about various reasons why we procrastinate, as well as ways to overcome it.

You’ll find the programme here (or below), do let me know what you think!

Golf Channel feature

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All golf-lovers will know that one of the biggest golf tournaments of the year is coming to Carnoustie this summer. The Open Championship is one of the ‘major’ events on the golfing calendar, and Carnoustie is considered to be one of the toughest golf courses in the world. As a result, there is a certain aura around Carnoustie that strikes fear into the hearts of amateur and professional golfers alike. It was this that I had the pleasure of talking to legendary golfer and commentator David Feherty about in a feature for NBC’s Golf Channel.  I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to do something a little different, and it was a pleasure to work with David and the Golf Channel crew. The piece will be aired in The States in July during The Open.

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Why we need to reconceptualise ‘Body Positivity’

The Body Positivity movement has become synonymous with the promotion of an overweight body shape, in the name of creating a ‘positive’ body image. There seem to be several reasons behind this movement, including the suggestion that those who are overweight are judged, ‘shamed’ and discriminated against. The aim is to encourage people (usually women) to feel positive about their bodies, regardless of what size they are, therefore challenging society’s ‘thin’ body standards.

However, as many have said before me, the problem with the Body Positivity movement is that it is actually encouraging (and promoting) an unhealthy body type. While I am a firm believer that we shouldn’t attempt to fit into society’s (or anyone else’s) expectations of what we should look like, I also believe that this should only be within healthy parameters.

This is one of the many places where the Body Positivity movement falls short, and ironically, becomes just as damaging as the size 0 movement. Both movements, at either end of the spectrum, are focused on looks, and promote an unhealthy body image and lifestyle. To this extent, the Body Positive movement is about looks just as much as the size 0 movement is. Equally, it is just as damaging to our health (although in different ways) to the size 0 movement. For example, excess weight is linked to a variety of long term, chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease and cancer; hardly goals we should strive towards. Sure, promoting obesity sticks two fingers up at the diet and fashion industry, saying ‘look, we’re fat and fabulous’, but at the end of the day, who are you fooling when you’re setting yourself up for a long-term, potentially terminal, illness?

While many of the Body Positive ambassadors try to counter the above criticisms by claiming that they are ‘fit’ as well as ‘fat’, recent research has suggested that it isn’t possible to be overweight without damaging your health (Iliodromiti et al., 2018). It is also a little naive to assume that just because someone isn’t promoting a size 0 lifestyle, that what they are promoting is necessarily good! Extremes are rarely positive, and in the rush to distance themselves from the excessively skinny ideal, people now seem happy to support the opposite extreme, rather than a happy (and healthy) medium.

Now, this is where I come to my main problem with the Body Positive movement: if proponents just admitted that they wanted to be fat, and didn’t care about the consequences for their health, I would be more willing to accept it. Ultimately, it is an individual’s right to do what they want with their health, and therefore their prerogative to chose weight over health (if we put aside the cost to the nation of caring for people who willingly choose to put their health at risk).

However, the problem is that Body Positive ambassadors don’t admit this – they promote their ‘cause’ as some sort of social good, making them dangerous at best, and disingenuous at worst. These people need to admit (or realise) that they have made the choice to prioritise their looks over their health; and not masquerade their decision as some sort of positive one – there is no good in endorsing and promoting bad health. Indeed, those who promote this lifestyle are just as bad as those who promote an anorexic lifestyle, perhaps even more so, due to their disingenuity being wrapped up in ‘positive’ jargon.

This is where I am so disappointed (although not entirely surprised) in the advertising, media and marketing agencies who have jumped on this bandwagon. While we perhaps don’t expect them to act ethically, they have an obligation to do so. However, we see fashion chains, advertisers, and social media campaigns all heralding these ill-health activists, presumably because they are at the opposite extreme to the size 0 models (which these companies have obviously been told they have to distance themselves from). However, they clearly haven’t given a great deal of thought to their principles, as they have just swapped promoting the size 0 illness-creating lifestyle for a chronic-disease-promoting ‘Body Positive’ campaign. A cynic might suggest that this is because the whole Body Positive campaign is just a PR exercise for such companies, with the added benefit that they might get more business if they attempt to appeal to the larger demographic (in both senses of the word). Ultimately if they were interested in their consumers’ wellbeing, or in doing the right thing, they wouldn’t support or endorse these campaigners at all, and instead would promote all body images and types within healthy parameters.

And this is ultimately what I think Body Positivity should be, it should be about saying ‘I am positive about my body because my body is healthy’, and just as importantly, ‘to hell with what I look like, I’m healthy’. The problems come as soon as we start to equate our looks with our health. As with the size 0 campaign, the Body Positive campaign is also about looking ‘good’ (albeit fat and good rather than skinny and good), and neither of these motivations are conducive to health. The motivation should be health, and then whether you’re on the larger side or the smaller side of average shouldn’t matter.

The problem is that often the Body Positive campaigners try to claim that what they are doing is in the name of health. However, as soon as you focus on looks (at either end of the spectrum), then you are motivated by the wrong thing, and your health will generally suffer. Ultimately this is why I argue that Body Positivity should be about having a healthy body. If this is your goal then it doesn’t matter what you look like, and you will feel good – both physically and mentally.

Ultimately, the Body Positive campaigners, and those who support them, need to take a long hard look at themselves. They need to admit (perhaps to themselves, as well as others) that they are not promoting Body Positivity – Body Positivity is about looking after yourself and paying attention to your body’s needs – not its looks. The existing campaigns are promoting an unhealthy look and lifestyle masquerading as a social movement, which has no apparent concern for the health of those who blindly follow it. Companies who support these campaigns are complicit in damaging the health of many, but yet are celebrated for it, by people who don’t know any better or those who have vested interests in promoting the ‘large lifestyle’. It is important that we learn to differentiate between fashionable social movements which contain the right buzzwords and campaigns that make sense: we need to really think about the campaigns that are being heralded before we blindly jump on the bandwagon. If we really want to improve our lives and our health, we need to care less about looks and more about our character and the values we are promoting…

 

 

Refs: Stamatina Iliodromiti, Carlos A Celis-Morales, Donald M Lyall, Jana Anderson, Stuart R Gray, Daniel F Mackay, Scott M Nelson, Paul Welsh, Jill P Pell, Jason M R Gill, Naveed Sattar; The impact of confounding on the associations of different adiposity measures with the incidence of cardiovascular disease: a cohort study of 296 535 adults of white European descent, European Heart Journal, , ehy057, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/ehy057

*Opinion piece: This blog reflects Kirsty’s opinion and not those of  any institutions she is associated with.

Teaching Award

I am delighted to announce that I have been nominated for a teaching award in the category of ‘Most Inspirational Teacher’ for my work with junior honours students at the University of Dundee last semester. Teaching has always been the favourite part of my job, so this award means a great deal to me and I am truly honoured to have been nominated.