I remember attending an informal get-together a few years ago with some local young people near the university of which I was then President, Dublin City University in Ireland. Those who are familiar with DCU know that it is situated close to some very deprived neighbourhoods on the northside of Dublin. The intention was to make the young people feel positive about the potential of a university education. Anyway, the discussion moved to role models; who did these young people look up to? Two answers have stayed in my memory: one suggested Britney Spears, while another voted for ‘anyone who drives a BMW’.
Two things to note here. Britney Spears never went to university, and at the time that this conversation was taking place was just going through a very public personal breakdown. As for the BMW drivers, the young people in the room were probably seeing a few of these, but the chances were that in many cases these were drug dealers. So in the lives of these young women and men, role models diverted their gaze far away from education.
More recently, the New York Times invited young people of 13 or over to suggest their role models. There was a significant response, but the overwhelming majority of those commenting listed parents, friends or relatives as their role models. This looks better, but what you get from it is that people seek to emulate their parents or relatives; and if the family background is one of disadvantage, this limits educational ambition. And actually, if your background is one of privilege, you are probably attracted to safe jobs in the professions, for which there is no longer any urgent social or economic need.
Why does all this matter? If we are to have an impact on education and career patterns, we need to be aware of the impact of role models, both good and bad. If we want to attract people from poorer backgrounds into higher value jobs and lives, there may be all sorts of social and cultural influences pushing the other way. Young people need to hear from those they admire, and who set out for them the benefits of higher education, and the desirability of more entrepreneurial careers. We need to persuade them that to be an engineer (where we have serious skill shortages) is as good a choice as, and maybe a better choice than, being a show business personality.
We need to make our culture converge with our social and educational needs. And we need this to be led by people who know and understand the influences and pressures that young people face.