More must be done to tackle educational elitism

By Anna Tatham

In 2017, one in three young people in England will go to university, meaning young people in this country are more likely to be in higher education than ever before.

Much has been achieved regarding accessibility to university as a whole, however the inequality of opportunity is still endemic within higher education systems, and not enough is being done by the universities themselves in order to alleviate it.

Data sourced by David Lammy MP in October 2017 demonstrated that the number of students going to Oxford from the top two social classes actually increased as a whole between 2010 and 2015. Both Oxford and Cambridge are vastly unrepresentative of the UK as a whole, with the majority of students being privileged and/or Southern.

Yet, there has been some progress: this year, 90% of the students admitted by Mansfield College, Oxford, came from state schools.

Mansfield College’s achievements highlight the apathy of other institutions

This is a momentous victory for an institution periodically rife with social inequality. But it’s one college out of 38.

Mansfield College’s ability to realistically reflect the UK population in its student body highlights the apathy amongst other institutions about the issue. Mansfield has proven that increasing accessibility is possible, whilst concurrently mocking its sibling colleges for remaining complicit in their entrenched elitism.

With more Oxbridge offers made to Eton students than students on free school meals across the country, Mansfield College’s impressive nine in ten state school demographic is a statistical anomaly.

Some of the brightest, the most creatively driven, and the most apt to lead and negotiate are being lost in the application process for the other 37 Oxford colleges. The myth of Oxbridge being inaccessible has not yet been completely dispelled.

Having spent some of the best times of my life at a state school I, naturally, fiercely protect it. I had (mostly) fantastic teachers, and managed to excel in ways I could have never imagined – such as being one of a handful in my year applying to Oxford University, then going on to interview.

Whilst staying in Oxford for my interviews, I found an acute state / private school divide, even as a naive seventeen-year-old whose primary concerns didn’t span much further than how to get alcohol without ID. “I can’t believe I’m actually here, at Oxford University”, I remember saying to a group of applicants I was sat with at dinner, as I admired the stupendous portraits in St Peter’s dining hall. This marked a stark moment for me: no one shared my disbelief. One guy laughed and said he always knew he’d make it here. I decided to stop going to the free college meals after that.

More Oxbridge offers go to Eton students than students on free school meals

The belief that Oxbridge exists solely for a privileged minority, which accounts for only 6.5% of students nationally, is a stereotype deeply – and dangerously – ingrained.

The discrepancy of opportunity is not just rife at Oxbridge: one can’t forget that Durham has a lower proportion of state school students than that at Cambridge (60.5%). We must not reside in our ivory tower and are by no means objective in this debate.

Durham inhibits accessibility with its extortionate price brackets, despite the North East being one of the cheapest places to live in the UK. With college accommodation fees reaching £8,000 in some instances next year, and tumultuous cuts to the Durham Grant and reductions in Supported Progression, Durham is becoming increasingly inaccessible to the working class. The University’s nonchalance towards the situation is even more infuriating, and simply embarrassing.

Accessibility to elitist institutions undoubtedly needs to improve, and Mansfield College has shown that this is absolutely possible. However, there’s a poignant paradox. More students from disadvantaged backgrounds need to be encouraged and equipped to apply to Oxbridge and other typically elitist institutions, of course. But what happens when they’re offered a place, to find out the living costs are way beyond the realm of affordability?

Accessibility is further inhibited by extortionate living costs

These institutions need to diversify, and grass is green. But in corroboration with this, these institutions need to look at how accessible their academia is beyond application, in terms of living and social costs. An improvement in admissions for the working class requires active awareness and sensibility from universities. Sadly, the latter is abhorrently absent.

Photograph: Tejvan Pettinger via Flickr and Creative Commons

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