education

Poor kids at uni: second-class students

The focus on making university easier for state-school pupils is deeply patronising.

England’s best universities are, some would have us believe, still re-enacting the Brideshead Revisited dream and providing enclaves of privilege for a wealthy elite to while away their time before embarking on a well-paid career. It’s true that four out of 10 students at Oxford and Cambridge previously attended fee-paying schools and that the children of professionals are 3.2 times more likely to go to high-ranking universities than their less fortunate counterparts. But the current obsession with the relationship between higher education and social class reveals a patronising attitude to working-class kids and a degraded understanding of higher education.

There’s little new in the argument that top universities both recruit from a social elite and smooth access to sought-after jobs. In 1963, the economist Baron Lionel Robbins, in his now famous report on the future of universities, argued for the expansion of higher education to people from more diverse social backgrounds with ‘ability and attainment’. He suggested there was a need for ‘increased attention to including young men and women from families with scant educational background’, pointing out that working-class ‘grammar-school boys’ may not perform as well at university admission interviews as their middle-class, privately educated peers. In 1970, the French sociologists Bourdieu and Passeron wrote Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, in which they explored the role of universities in confirming and reproducing social and economic status.

Decades later and rarely does a week go by without a news report castigating universities, and even some academic disciplines, for privileging applicants from private schools and standing in the way of the social mobility of working-class kids. In reality, however, universities today invest time and money in outreach schemes, residential ‘taster’ visits, guest speakers and student ambassadors in order to widen participation to under-represented social groups, and successive governments have relentlessly argued for individual social mobility as the primary goal of higher education.

Higher education undoubtedly allows people access to certain careers and thereby provides a route to social mobility for some. This is not to be sneered at; why shouldn’t a working-class kid aspire to any job they desire, the higher paid the better? Individuals have always had private reasons for wanting to study, and education has provided a route out of poverty for many. In the past, however, students’ personal motivations were met by largely indifferent academics, whose interest lay primarily in the knowledge they pursued and sought to convey. For many an initially instrumentally driven student, the goal of personal betterment came to incorporate a powerful desire to have access to a world of knowledge, ideas and culture. When social mobility becomes the goal of higher education, then the pursuit of knowledge is easily jettisoned in favour of some generic skills training. Working-class youth gain neither a valuable positional good nor, more importantly, the knowledge of a world beyond their immediate circumstances.

When higher education is considered to be all about securing a good job, the apparent disadvantage of being excluded is actually compounded. Today’s supposedly anti-elitist campaigners for increasing access to higher education to socially disadvantaged groups are keen for universities to make use of contextual data when assessing applicants. In other words, A-level grades shouldn’t be considered in isolation but in the context of a potential student’s postcode, family circumstances, previous schooling, whether they were in receipt of free school meals, and whether they spent time in care. What’s being argued here is that people from more disadvantaged backgrounds can’t be expected to perform as well academically and so they need to have allowances made for them. No doubt the hurdle of A-levels is easier if you have everything stacked in your favour, but the patronising assumption that some people need concessions to level the playing field is unhelpful in the extreme.

Offering kids from state schools, or more specifically comprehensives, entry to university with lower grades lets schools off the hook. A report published earlier this year claims some state-school pupils, once at university, perform better than their privately educated peers. This was again used to support arguments for the use of contextual admissions data, but surely the real story here is why teachers cannot get their obviously bright pupils up to the required standard for university entry. Offering lower grades for having gone to a poorly performing school legitimises a culture of low expectations and relativises achievement. One charge levelled against private-sector schools is that they cram pupils for exam success. Ironically, a frequent complaint from state schools is that under Conservative education secretary Michael Gove’s directions, the diktats of league tables and an overburdened curriculum, teachers can do little other than prepare children for tests. This argument doesn’t work both ways.

Of course, some state-school pupils do not suddenly perform better once at university. A danger of relying on contextual data is that we set people up to fail. Course-entry requirements provide an indication of the complexity of the material to be covered. It suggests the starting point, a base line of knowledge lecturers can safely assume. Those without this knowledge will inevitably find the work more demanding. One way some universities try to get round this problem is by passing on to course tutors the initial contextual data with an assumption that additional support or allowances should be made for these students. The result is that lecturers do not treat all their students in the same way, and, however kindly meant, are making assumptions about the potential and abilities of some.

Positive discrimination undermines working-class students, who are left questioning whether the mark they get for a piece of work is really good, or just good for them. They are denied the opportunity to compete as equals with their contemporaries and they are denied legitimate access to the transformative potential of real intellectual struggle. Attending university should be neither an entitlement nor a rite of passage for anyone, no matter what their family background. Higher education is not a right; it’s a privilege that’s earned through proof of hard work and academic study. Going to university should be an ambition for people to strive towards; the reward is not better job prospects but access to knowledge. The move from pupil to student suggests a shift from acquiring knowledge to pursuing new ideas. Contributing to new knowledge is far more satisfying and exciting than just gaining a few transferable employability skills. By making higher education all about social class, we patronise working-class students and deny them an opportunity to engage with knowledge in a truly transformative way.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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