student life

Affluence, abilities, and achievement – is university for all?

Sitting in a sociology lecture at university, the professor made what I thought was a sweeping statement – “everyone in this room is middle class.” Sociologically, there’s a lot to dissect there. Economically middle class? Socially? According to which writer? Are we the bourgeoisie?

When you come from a small town with one part-time working parent and another who is mentally disabled, being labelled middle class is a new experience. Our home’s income certainly doesn’t suggest so – it would tell you we straddle the relative poverty line.

The lecturer than asked us to guess how many colleges the University of Oxford has, and to name them. We guessed around ten, and could name only Christ Church and Trinity. There were a lot of gasps when we were told there are just under forty.

His point was this – at an elite private secondary school, many of the pupils would have been able to name lots of those colleges. He then assumed that while the students in his lecture theatre were well-educated, they likely hadn’t gone to places like Eton or Fettes. Equally, they probably hadn’t gone to Drumchapel or Govan either.

If university truly is for everyone, then it has a long way to go before the facts reflect that. UCAS has said that students from poorer areas are applying more than before, but those from more affluent areas are still more than twice as likely to apply.

In the last year there have been renewed pushes to encourage people from all walks of life to continue education past the mandatory age of sixteen. In England, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has welcomed the increase in people staying in education longer, but due to the fragmented approach in encouraging students there is a lack of evidence showing what methods are most effective.

Similarly in Scotland, the Commission on Widening Access has been set up with an aim for “developing plans to help more students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland to enter and succeed in higher education.”

The established class system

Some schools have a top-up programme giving students the chance to lower one of the grades on their UCAS conditional. Many universities have summer school programmes that encourage students to experience a feel for an institution before joining it full time. These partner school agreements seem to reach out to those in poorer communities and help them bridge a gap, the size of which depends on where you live or how wealthy your parents are.

But, these kinds of things catch the eye of those who are already keen on going to university. Summer schools, like unpaid internships, favour those who are financially able to not work for a duration of time.

Even between universities there exists a class system. While University of Glasgow students may see Strathclyde students as worthy rivals, there is still plenty of mockery thrown towards those at Caledonian, and even less respect shown to those at University of the West of Scotland. Though, we can be sure it exists at the elite ancient institutions as well, with those who go to Oxbridge sooner dying than stepping foot in…well, Glasgow as a whole.

Education as an establishment may not be helping matters, nor indeed these programmes determined to send everyone to university. The more it is pushed as a necessity, the more that those who don’t go will feel like failures. Colleges can offer education and experiences that university can’t, and can provide ample qualifications and knowledge for a whole host of jobs. People who leave school at sixteen and find employment through the arduous task of CVing everyone who’ll accept them are not less vaued members of our community than those who have suffered a dissertation.

The real success will come when those who go to Eton don’t feel compelled to continue on to Oxbridge, and find pride in their work as a brickie or a plumber, just as much as someone from Glasgow’s east end can go on to become a politician. While university education shouldn’t be seen as necessary, it should be open to anyone and everyone no matter your background. It is encouraging to see increased and renewed efforts to get kids from less privileged backgrounds to be able to further their studies, but there is still a long way to go before it can be considered anywhere near equal.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.