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.
— Conservatives (@Conservatives) August 16, 2018
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.
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.
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