Disadvantaged Students access to Elite Universities: is the system fair for all? Is there a solution to the disparity?

By Samuel Osman & Rhodri Sheldrake Davies

In corroboration with the Durham Working Class Students’ Association

In February of this year, Guardian Education correspondent Sally Weale wrote a scathing article claiming that ‘Efforts to widen student participation at UK universities have stalled’. Yet, a mere six months later, as teenagers across the United Kingdom received their results, the Conservative Party proclaimed that record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds had been accepted into university.

Whilst UCAS figures show that although more disadvantaged students than ever before are now entering university, vindicating the Tory Party’s claim, since the trebling of tuition fees by the 2010 government, this hasn’t necessarily been conducive to increased intake for students from a range of backgrounds.

Shockingly, in nine of the twenty-four universities that make up the Russell Group, last year, the number of entrants from state school backgrounds fell

A report from 2017, produced by the independent think tank Reform, noted that whilst between 2007 and 2016 the proportional intake of disadvantaged students in Higher Education overall had grown, at the UK’s top ‘Higher-tariff’ Universities a mere 6% of entrants came from disadvantaged backgrounds in 2016, less than a 1% increase from 2007. Shockingly, in nine of the twenty-four universities that make up the Russell Group, last year, the number of entrants from state school backgrounds fell.

Considering the unique opportunities many of these institutions offer to students, and their close connections with the world of academia and the corridors of power, the importance of making them more accessible to students from a wider range of backgrounds cannot be understated. Almost a third of CEOs are alumni of the UK’s top universities, as are the majority of MPs sitting in the House of Commons.

In the period 2015-16, research by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) showed an investment of ‘over a billion pounds’ was spent on widening participation in universities, with more than £230mn devoted to fair access. However, these programmes are falling short, as recently conceded by Education Secretary Damian Hinds, accepting that, whilst not instinctively biased against taking on disadvantaged students, the UK’s elite institutions still need to do more to improve access.

Unlike other applicants from more economically well-off backgrounds, they are keenly aware of the debt that they are accumulating

The questions we must ask are: what is the root cause of this lack of change, and what must be done to remedy it?

A major factor is the lack of financial support students at some of the UK’s top institutions still suffer. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds remain in a situation where, unlike other applicants from more economically well-off backgrounds, they are keenly aware of the debt that they are accumulating.

We should note from the outset that elite universities are both culturally and economically distinct from other Higher Education Institutions. The terms of ‘disadvantagement’ at these institutions are warped by the fact that, in order to participate, students are expected to invest significant funds into society subscription fees, balls, formals and the purchase of clothing such as gowns, suits and dresses. Similarly, at almost all of the UK’s ‘elite universities’, especially Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Durham and the London Universities, are seeing rapidly increasing costs of accommodation and living, with average rents now exceeding £400ppm. Programmes attempting to advertise to disadvantaged students do not annul the fact that many top Universities’ grants don’t go far enough to cover these costs. This leaves economically disadvantaged students increasingly forced to take these economic factors into consideration upon the reception of an offer, in cases opting to attend other institutions with lower costs of living and more generous grant schemes.

However, this goes further than purely financial issues.

Another major factor affecting access, seemingly avoided by Government ministers looking to shift blame, is the state of the school system applicants’ experience pre-university. This is corroborated by 2017 research by the Sutton Trust which proposed that ‘the admissions process [at schools] itself may be a potential driver of the access gap’.

TeachFirst research into OFSTED figures in 2017 suggested that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are half as likely to be able to attend an outstanding school, hence, many schools in disadvantaged areas lack the resources to dedicate towards getting students to these universities, whilst also providing an adequate level of support to those choosing other paths. Similarly, schools in disadvantaged areas are also more likely to under-predict grades for their more highly able students, and often fail to provide them the information they need at the application stage.

Elite universities’ often disappointing ill-preparedness to place support for these students to the forefront of their priorities is leading to a culture where role-models for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are underrepresented

This resource barrier is only exacerbated by cultural discourses. In many schools in deprived areas, a narrative exists that suggests to pupils, often passively, that they don’t need or deserve access to the UK’s top institutions. This permeates the minds of many students well into the application phase, with Press Association analysis of UCAS data suggesting that in 2016 disadvantaged students were far less likely to apply than peers from other areas of the UK.

In the meantime, Elite universities’ often disappointing ill-preparedness to place support for these students to the forefront of their priorities is leading to a culture where role-models for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds are underrepresented. This has been a key goal of groups such as Durham’s Working Class Students Association and student-led programs such as Inspire to Aspire, however, thus far, these have yet to be embraced by Elite institutions in an active way.

“It is a political issue of the culture and narrative surrounding these schools and at universities, exacerbated by a lack of resources and financial support for students”

In sum, the issue of disadvantaged student uptake goes far further than purely a question of entrance statistics or ‘programmes to reach out’ at the UK’s top institutions. It is a political issue of the culture and narrative surrounding these schools and at universities, exacerbated by a lack of resources and financial support for students. For this to be turned around, it is vital that responsibility is taken at all levels to build a more supportive environment which does not deny disadvantaged students a sense of place in elite universities, as well as an investment in resources at all levels.

To find out more about the work of Durham’s Working-Class Student Association and the work they are doing to counter this, as well as wider issues pertaining to disadvantaged & working-class students at Durham, or to get involved, you can contact them here.

 

Photographs: subherwal via Flickr

One Response

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  1. nemo
    Sep 12, 2018 - 03:26 PM

    Interesting article.

    I can talk about my own experience around thirty years ago, and possibly compare it to today.

    I am originally from Middlesbrough. I come from a working-class family and was the first to attend a University. I went to a comprehensive school in the town. When I was younger, my parents were both in employment, but this changed for several reasons in the early 1980s. My dad never had full-time paid employment again (and not for want of effort). In modern terms, I would probably have been identified a being part of a “disadvantaged” group.

    The catchment area for my secondary school (and the sixth form was next door) took in the local council estate, where I lived, as well as pupils from the more affluent suburban areas. I was an academic high-achiever, so my teachers were immediately encouraging of my professed desire to go on to university. It was not even an issue. I wonder f this is the case now, given the financial barriers to entry. My parents were also incredibly supportive, for which I am eternally grateful. There was no pressure for me to be a “wage earner”, and certainly a belief that what I was doing had a long term purpose and benefit. I had good, skilled teachers, and the curriculum, split between the more university matriculation focused requirements of O Level and the general needs of CSE (GCSEs were introduced as I completed my A Levels), had significant academic rigour to make the transition to University easier. I was in a group who were expected to preform well in those exams (even though there were no league tables to worry about). The school was not especially well resourced (this was the mid 80s, so the state sector was still suffering the austerity of Thatcherism, and the strikes that went with it), but at same time, there was not the same level of technological need. This was at the beginning of the IT revolution, and pre-internet. It was all very trad chalk & talk. That levelled the playing field a bit.

    I was one of a handful of people at my sixth form who went the Oxford/Cambridge route. Only one of us got in (though he was certainly deserving of the place, it probably helped that his dad had been at the same college). And so up I came to Durham. I received a full student grant. This was not unusual, mainly before only around 10% of 18-25 year olds was in the University system. For the first two years of my degree, there weren’t any student loans at all.

    At the time Durham was much a smaller institution (around five and a half thousand students), and I joined a college that had the highest state school intake (this is not the case now; Collingwood is now second only to Hatfield in the number of independent School students who gained places last year). I was lucky in that sense: if I’d gone into some parts of the University then, I would probably have struggled more to come to terms with the new environment I found myself in. My cousin’s daughter got a place at Collingwood a couple of years ago. She only lasted a year before moving closer to home.

    Indeed, there were no particular specialist support functions back then. I was not seen as needing special support, or having special needs because of where I’d come from. I was simply the same as everyone else because I’d hit the entry tariff as far as the university’s machinery was concerned. Of course, the underlying class distinctions once I arrived were fairly clear, and being not particularly affluent had its downsides. That said, the Durham in was in was whiter and maler: a less diverse place than it is now, though one might make a reasonable case of saying that modern Durham still isn’t *that* diverse either.

    I was able to live in college for all of my three years (also not unusual back then). Accommodation costs were not especially cheap (I seem to remember a figure of around £2400p.a.) but they were not extortionate considering what the offer was. If I couldn’t find work during the summer vacation, I could actually claim unemployment benefit. That stopped towards the end of my time as a student, and I was in the window of students who were obliged to pay the hated poll tax too.

    The facts are that there were fewer tangible barriers to entry than there are for many modern students form my background. I didn’t have any worries about accruing huge amounts of long term debt, or about the cost of accommodation. There was no surprise that I should attempt entry to an “elite” university, no any real surprise when I managed to get into one. And I had more reasonable expectation of a better paying career when I finished because there were simply fewer graduates chasing that type of work. I think I was remarkably lucky to grow up when I did. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the generation my own teenage daughter belongs to.

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