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Society, Politics & Law

A channel between them: Differing aspirations of French and British graduates

Updated Monday 24th March 2014

New research throws up different desires for the future between French and British students. Sally Power explains why.

Laurie Taylor:
Sciences Po lecture rooms at 27 Rue Saint Guillaume Creative commons image Icon Eva.arfwedson via WikiCommons under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Reading rooms at Sciences Po - but where to from here? I recall a high level university meeting – I suppose it was some time probably in the mid-eighties – at which the topic for discussion was what to do about graduation day. You see what prompted the meeting was the recognition that the days of the late sixties and early seventies, when a significant proportion of graduates declined the opportunity to dress up in robes and bow to the chancellor and receive their mock parchment certificate, had long since departed. In this new era graduating students, even in social science, seemed not only to relish ceremonial trappings but to display an appetite for even more ritual.

And it was this which prompted one junior lecturer at the meeting to blurt out the memorable suggestion ‘Vice-Chancellor, couldn’t we lob in a bit of Latin?’

But, of course, another ritual feature of such occasions is the Chancellor’s address in which year after year he, usually he, almost inevitably a he, sonorously tells graduates that this is the moment when they step out into the real world, a real world in which they should seek to exemplify and live by the values and fulfil the aspirations they have acquired during their three years of study at the University of Rummidge.

But what exactly are those aspirations? Well a new paper in the British Journal of Sociology explores just that question and it does so in a comparative manner by contrasting the hopes, desires of British and French university graduates. And its author who now joins me isSally Power, and she’s Professor of Social Science at Cardiff University.

Now I know this particular project – I mean you’re looking at French and English graduates – but this is part of a research project into the new global middle class isn’t it.

Sally Power:
Yes, I mean we were particularly interested to explore the kind of transnational nature of employability and particularly graduate employability in the light of this kind of so-called war for talent, global war for talent.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay so these are going to be new citizens of the world, if you like, and you interviewed graduates in England and France. How did you – how did you match them up, pretty tricky comparative job?

Sally Power:
It is a tricky comparative job and clearly the two samples that we have are only roughly equivalent. Our Oxford sample are studying the PPE and history at Oxford University, which is widely recognised as a global university. Our French sample are studying public administration at Sciences Po, which is one the Grande Ecoles, also a global university. They both kind of are seen to feed into I suppose elite jobs in public service, so PPE at Oxford we have the Milibrand brothers, David Cameron and if we look at Sciences Po nearly every French premier has come from the Sciences Po.

Laurie Taylor:
Now one of the parameters that interests you is their attitudes which they’re showing towards work. I mean perhaps we should start off by just as we’re talking a little bit about the changing nature of work and so therefore the changing nature of expectations about it.

Sally Power:
Yes I think there’s a growing recognition that work isn’t just something you do to earn money and then kind of go home and do more expressive things. I think the idea is that work is a kind of project of the self and it’s the way in which you realise your ambitions and your desires. So it’s far more important to your sense of identity.

Laurie Taylor:
So your self is implicated much more than it was previously. Let’s talk first about these English graduates and what their aspirations were. Let’s hear first of all a reading from your interview with Stuart, this is one of the Oxford respondents.

Stuart:
In terms of my career development it is very me centred I suppose. I think I would do whatever and choose to go and work wherever I thought I would get the most benefit in terms of personal development. I think I would be quite wary of getting rocked into a long term kind of career path with hierarchical progression in one institution.

I mean you can detect a certain sort of nomadic rootless element there. I mean how typical was that?

Sally Power:
That was very typical of the Oxford students who tended to think about their careers in terms of projects of self-fulfilment. So they talked about going from place to place, from employer to employer and moving on whenever they got bored to look for new challenges.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, well we’re going to get the contrast with the French in a moment but before we go there one of the other things that you looked at and which was particularly interesting to me was the differences in terms of their allegiances to their country because you were talking about them going into public service and when they were imagining their futures, I mean what did the Oxford sample – how did they come up on this in terms of allegiance to country?

Sally Power:
Well they were uniformly silent in terms of expressing any allegiance to serving Britain. In fact for some of them moving abroad or in fact living abroad was their main desire, so that they saw themselves very much as international citizens and would discount anything that would…

Laurie Taylor:
So the idea that really they were being trained as national leaders, which as you suggested earlier on was perhaps one of the functions of this degree in the past no longer holds.

Sally Power:
No it looks as though they’re more interested in pursuing careers in the private sector, financing, consultancy.

Laurie Taylor:
Let’s turn now to these French graduates. Tell me about their attitudes towards business and private sector values, what did they have to say?

Sally Power:
Well they were generally very disdainful of the private sector. You can’t imagine a stronger contrast in some way with our Oxford graduates. So they talked very much about their responsibility to France, to public administration, they – almost all of them, even if they weren’t talking about France in a patriotic way – talked about the importance of public service.

Laurie Taylor:
Almost passionately I think you suggest.

Sally Power:
Yes, so some of them said it’s in my soul, it’s my calling – it seemed to be expressed as a real vocation for them.

Laurie Taylor:
And we have a good illustration here, this is Francoise, one of the French graduates. I mean you used the word disdain before and that is exactly present there in this quotation in which she’s talking about French people who choose to work outside France.

Francoise:
The ex-patriots are often people who do not have high enough pay in France. When they are abroad their pay is multiplied by three, so suddenly they find a superior way of life than they were used to in France. And since there is no gradual progression in their revenue they have a nouveau riche way of doing things – they show off, they’re flamboyant – and this is not my style at all, I do not want my life to be like this.

So here a very definite desire really not to work abroad, to stay in France and work for France.

Sally Power:
Yes that’s right. I mean I think they very much aligned their sense of civic duty with their occupation in a way which was quite different from our Oxford graduates.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean if we’re talking about patriotism I mean perhaps your English graduates, I don’t know, just feel more uneasy talking about national loyalty in some ways, I don’t know whether patriotism comes easier to French graduates in terms of their ability to talk about it?

Sally Power:
I’m sure that’s true and I think some of it is about the acceptability of particular discourses. But that just reveals a deeper issue about what governs that acceptability.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean the English – I don’t know – the English do seem to come off badly don’t they, they’re not particularly civic minded, they’re looking for money, they’re prepared to go anywhere to get it, they’re not particularly altruistic, they’re not particularly patriotic – is that a fair conclusion?

Sally Power:
No I don’t think so, I would want to argue very strongly against the idea that the British students were selfish and the French students were selfless. I mean we know, for instance, that a lot of our – for all their expressions of public duty – a lot of our French graduates will end up in the private sector and a lot of our British graduates they talk very much about volunteering and we know a lot of them will volunteer from other research, it’s just not – it’s decoupled from their work. So it’s just a different way of giving something back.

Laurie Taylor:
So you wouldn’t want to say that the views the Oxford graduates were expressing about being reluctant to work in the public sector this had anything to do with say the hollowing out of the state in Britain, the ways in which the public sector has been perhaps diminished or devalued even?

Sally Power:
I think it has everything to do with the way in which the state has been hollowed out in Britain. It’s very interesting if you compare what they’re saying now with aspirations in the first half of the 20th Century to join the clergy, then we saw a lot of elite graduates from Oxbridge expressing desires to join the clergy and we don’t see that anymore. And I suspect that’s not so much about a loss of faith as a loss of influence and power amongst the clergy, so that elite graduates tend to seek out positions of power and influence. Now in France you can still have those positions of power and influence within public administration.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you said originally – I mean this is your concern with the new global middle class, I mean to what extent does this play into this, does this mean that you think well perhaps the idea that there’s going to be a global middle class without any attachment to anywhere or without any attachment to any public service values or any national identity, I mean do you see this as indicative of something that is happening or – I mean are you variously reassured or rendered sad by your discoveries?

Sally Power:
I think I’m intrigued by the very strong continuation of national differences in a so say globalised climate.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay so this is – this is, if you like, an antidote to cruder talk about globalisation?

Sally Power:
Precisely.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much, Sally Power – thank you very much.

 

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