First published in The Independent 20th August 2013
With another year’s A-Level results received and university places accepted, the idea that higher education is meant for all bright pupils, not simply those who can afford it, should not be a contentious one. However, Professor Les Ebon, head of the Office of Fair Access, suggests that the undeniable middle-class bias in higher education is partly due to it being in the financial interest of universities to take on more students from middle-class backgrounds, because they have parents able to support them if they fall into financial difficulties and are therefore less likely to drop out. To me, this seems a potent illustration of the inequalities present in our education system and yet another disheartening obstruction to the educational attainment of pupils from less affluent backgrounds.
It is no secret that students who have attended schools in more deprived areas or who come from families without a tradition of higher education are at a disadvantage before they set foot upon a university campus. The number of students achieving As and A*s fell slightly this year from 26.6% to 26.3% but the proportion gaining top grades has been similarly high in recent years, suggesting that A-Level students must differentiate themselves in other ways when applying for competitive university places. The extra accomplishments that allow candidates to distinguish themselves tend to be the privilege of more middle-class students. If you come from a middle-class family, your parents are more likely to be able to afford music lessons or private tuition. If you go to a private or grammar school, or a high-performing comprehensive in a middle-class area, that school is more likely to be rich in resources and able to provide students with sporting opportunities and other extra-curricular activities.
Schools with a tradition of sending pupils to top universities will also be in the habit of offering greater support in the form of interview preparation and information about the kind of subject choices favoured by leading institutions. In 2010-11, a third of pupils from private schools went on to top universities and 2010 findings by the Sutton Trust indicate that private school pupils are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge than their state school counterparts. I refuse to believe that it is because students from poorly-performing comprehensive schools or cash-strapped backgrounds are ‘not as clever’. This is a case of financial segregation, occurring long before personal statements are penned.
The current government’s reforms will leave today’s graduates paying off around a crippling £60,000 in debts. With figures suggesting that one in ten graduates are jobless six months after leaving university and there are 4% fewer graduate jobs this year than in 2012, it is not as though employment is guaranteed for those with an increasingly expensive degree. These factors alone can discourage those from families in less financially advantageous positions from choosing a university education, despite being bright and able. Owen Jones, author of Chavs, goes on to describe the advantages middle-class graduates gain from their parents’ networks and contacts and how it is these graduates who can afford to work as unpaid interns when attempting to break into fields including journalism and politics.
Chancellor George Osborne has this year cut 10% from the student opportunity fund as part of his financial onslaught against the higher education sector, and this is simply not acceptable. This fund allows universities to meet some of the costs of attracting more students from diverse backgrounds, including what is spent on outreach programmes, and must be protected. The idea of Britain being a meritocracy where those who work hard are rewarded is questionable at best, as we all start from different places and under different circumstances. However, it is further undermined by the hike in tuition fees, universities’ view of middle-class students as a ‘safer bet’ and the subsequent bias against those from poorer backgrounds. Higher education should be available for every intelligent and aspirational student and I firmly believe that crude financial divisions should not prevent this from becoming a reality.