Keeping it Classy – Why Universities Are Still a Class Issue


New plans published by the government are to allow universities to charge more than £9000 per year if they score high on student satisfaction, teaching quality and employment outcomes. Data recently released from UCAS reveals that applicants to Glasgow University from the most deprived areas of Scotland are three times less likely to receive an offer than applicants from affluent areas, with a slight decrease in the number of deprived students being accepted since last year. While record numbers of state school students were admitted to university in 2014, almost all the top UK universities have a disproportionate intake from private schools – Glasgow University has one of the more equal intakes within the Russell Group, with around 12% of its student body being privately educated. Oxford, St. Andrews and Cambridge are all over 40% privately educated. Only 7% of children in the UK go to private school. One thing that is abundantly clear from these statistics – university is still a class issue.

Surprisingly, the increase in tuition fees in 2012 did not significantly decrease the number of students going to University. One way to spin this is that the new tuition fees are a success: young people still want an education regardless of cost, and higher education will now be more profitable for the government (if we’re able to pay off our loans, which is currently unlikely for most of us).

The alternative – and I suspect much more accurate – reason for this is that, for many young people, there were already financial and cultural barriers to university long before higher tuition fees came in. This is supported further by the fact that the introduction of free tuition to Scottish students hasn’t seen an increase in the number of students from deprived areas of Scotland going to University.

One comment I’ve heard time and time again that ‘everyone goes go university now’. This often repeated remark is strange and outright untrue – while there are far more University students now than in our parents’ generation, the current statistic is that around 50% of young people go to University. Half of young people is not ‘all’, ‘almost all’, or ‘most – it’s half. But the vast majority of those who don’t go to university are working class. In the largely middle-class university environment, perhaps ‘everyone goes to University now’ really means ‘everyone I know goes to university.’

So what about this 50% who aren’t in higher education? Many who don’t, and would never want to be, have made their choice and are happy in careers that don’t require a degree. But many who would be at university had they been raised in a middle class household, lack the environment and the means to get them there. These barriers can be as simple as not having enough to eat– if your free school meal is the only you can expect every day, there’s little chance you’ll have to energy to concentrate in class – or not having the time to study because you need the money from your part-time job to keep your family afloat. While our standardised testing may theoretically seem fair – everyone takes the same exam and is judged accordingly – those in understaffed and underfunded schools get a very different teaching experience to those in expensive private education. If you’re struggling with a subject at A-Level or Highers, your parents can always hire a tutor for you – unless they don’t have the money, in which case you better puzzle it out on your own.

The fact that good grades are no longer enough for a place at University puts up another class barrier for those who have the brains but not the means. Almost everything that looks good on a personal statement – a musical instrument, a Duke of Edinburgh award, work experience, a volunteering trip to Malaysia – often comes with a substantial price tag, and if not, with an expense of time. It can be easy to forget in the 11-contact-hours-a-week world of university that free time is a luxury not everyone has, particularly not those working minimum wage jobs to put themselves through university in the first place.

The Conservatives making new moves to treat education as a business is disheartening but unsurprising. Class is a contentious issue in Britain, particularly at university, as students hopefully become more aware of their place in society and most likely of their privilege, with some being uncomfortable to learn of the benefits their background has given them. I do not know how to tear down these class barriers, and I sadly don’t expect our government to do it, at least for the next four years. But at the very least, we can start by talking about it.

[Clare Patterson – @clurrpatterson]

Image – Glasgow University

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