Forget McJob ­ aim for a life with the blue chips

Mentoring is one of the big ideas of New Labour. Lucy Hodges looks at how ethnic minority students at Greenwich University are fulfilling their dreams
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One of Tony Blair's themes in the election was how to turn ordinary Brits into entrepreneurs, people who aim high, seize their opportunities and contribute to the greater good of UK plc. He will be gratified, therefore, with a scheme at the University of Greenwich which tries to put black and ethnic minority graduates in a position to fulfil their dreams.

Concern about racial discrimination in the workplace has been with us ever since the SS Empire Windrush docked at Southampton in 1948. It was given added impetus earlier this year when official figures showed that ethnic minority graduates had significantly lower employment rates than whites. Last year, 94.1 per cent of graduates were in work or further training or study six months after leaving university. But for black African graduates the figure was 87 per cent, for black Caribbeans 90.7 per cent and for Bangladeshi and Pakistanis 88.4 per cent and 89 per cent respectively.

To attempt to crack that phenomenon, Greenwich introduced a mentoring scheme, matching ethnic minority students with highfliers in the City and elsewhere. The hope was that this would persuade black students to lift their sights above the McJobs that had mostly been their experience hitherto and to aspire to careers as managers in blue-chip companies and government departments. One of the problems faced by ethnic minority students is discrimination; but another is that they don't believe in themselves.

By having a mentor who talks to them, nurtures them, shows them how to write CVs and application forms, and how to conduct an interview, the students find themselves growing in self-confidence and able to negotiate a world that until then has been scarily unfamiliar. The mentors take a close interest in how students are performing in their studies, something they may not have experienced before; they visit the university to see their charges in their own environment; and they invite them to their own offices for periods of work-shadowing. Sometimes the relationship pays off handsomely: students have moved on to jobs in their mentors' organisations when they graduate; others have secured summer work placements with investments banks such as HSBC and Goldman Sachs.

"The input from mentors can make a real difference to students, both in their degree and when they enter the job market," says Beverley Crooks, mentoring co-ordinator. "An economics student came to me with a big dilemma ­ whether to accept a place on an MA programme at Cambridge or a job with the United Nations in New York. His mentor had really opened his eyes to issues in the news, in this case, the banana trade war, which he was able to incorporate into his exam ­ with great success."

The Greenwich scheme, which has been running for seven years, has begun to show some good results: the employment rates of black students has improved, according to Rosalind Street-Porter, head of student services. In 1999, ethnic minority students were three times more likely than whites to be unemployed on graduation; in 2000 they were only twice as likely. "We would not argue that this is a direct result of the mentoring, but mentoring is one of a number of initiatives we have in place to address the employment problem and it is contributing to the improvement," she says.

There are 25 mentors volunteering to give up their time to work with Greenwich students, including bank managers, army and police officers, lawyers, information technology consultants, and senior civil servants. The idea is that they get together for 12 hours during the academic year, sometime between October and April, and that they meet for two hours at a time.

This is only one of the mentoring programmes at Greenwich: another entails ethnic minority students mentoring secondary schools pupils from local schools; a third is peer group mentoring to help first year students settle in to the university. John Humphreys, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Greenwich, sees mentoring in fairly prosaic terms. "It's a manifestation of a university recognising the needs of its customers," he says. "Ultimately it's good business. We need to be serving the needs of the people around us in order to be doing our job."

Other universities are involved in similar schemes. South Bank University has a two-way mentoring tie-up with Lewisham College whereby its education managers mentor South Bank students and the South Bank students mentor those in Lewisham. For the South Bank students this is a way of encouraging them to seek careers in education management.

Mentoring, an idea borrowed from other countries such as the USA and Israel, is one of the big fashionable concepts of our time. New Labour embraced it, launching a pilot project two years ago. That covered six universities and was aimed at persuading teenagers who would not normally contemplate higher education to do so. University students were matched with school pupils, spending hours talking to them about their studies and trying to spark their interest in going to university.

Today, there are 17 universities involved in the scheme and three more negotiating to join, according to Alan Evans, the national coordinator. A total of 900 student mentors have been recruited and trained ­ and are being paid for their pains. Each mentor works with four pupils, meaning that to date more than 3,000 pupils have been covered.

Is this project working? Are more disadvantaged youngsters, those without a tradition of higher education in their families, applying for higher education? The answer is not clear yet. But Prue Huddleston, director of the Centre for Education and Industry at Warwick University, who is evaluating the programme, says the mentors and the mentored are getting a lot out of it. Moreover, the scores of the mentored pupils have improved in SATs tests, she says. This summer she will be able to see whether GCSE results have improved for the mentored children.

"There are some very positive outcomes in terms of raised confidence, self-esteem, attendance, punctuality, organisational skills and time management," she says. "Mentoring develops both the pupils who are mentored and the higher education students doing the mentoring."

But some experts have their doubts. One is Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, of Durham University, who says that the mentoring programmes must be subjected to rigorous evaluation. "We may do harm when we set out to do good," she says. "If you encourage people to be dependent, it may not in the long run be the most effective thing to do."

Alan Evans, however, denies that the Government's programme encourages a culture of dependency. "We train our mentors that it's not a dependent relationship," he says. "From day one they are told to have an exit strategy, so they know how they are going to exit from the relationship. Their goal is to help the mentored be successful independent learners, to be self-starters, and to stand on their own two feet."