Why is there still inequality at prestigious universities?

Alice Galatola discusses why students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to Russell Group universities.

Alice Galatola
4th February 2020
Image: NUSU
University is widely believed to be the great equaliser.  With state school-educated students able to point out to privately educated students that we all ended up in the same place, it almost feels as if the class divide boycotts higher education.  A recent study reveals that this could not be further from the truth.  In fact, high performing students from disadvantaged areas are less likely to choose prestigious universities.

It is easy to dismiss this as reverse snobbery, but government programmes have spent much money ensuring that students from various backgrounds have the ability to apply to universities.  The issue of course arises that this is not enough. Perhaps the fault is in schools?

Although these students achieve high grades, high enough to attend prestigious universities, disadvantaged schools lack the resources to sufficiently channel students to Russel Group universities.  With large class sizes and simply not enough funding to give students the same individual attention as schools in wealthier areas, it is feasible that students do not have the necessary one-on-one interactions with teachers to advise them in their applications, in which case the answer would be to increase funding to disadvantaged schools, as, after all, grades are not the only thing considered in applications.

Programmes such as the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme, volunteering and musical instrument grades, which students are repeatedly informed are necessary for admission to prestigious institutions, are the prerogative of the advantaged.  After all, any such extracurricular activity requires investment.  Instruments, sporting gear and camping equipment do not come cheap.  Similarly when students must find work outside of school to provide financial support to their family, they do not have time for such activities which UCAS presents as essential for successful applications to Russel Group institutions.

Perhaps though, it is the consequence of a university education which deters applicants.  Most students are left with a £27,000 tuition fee debt, however a further burden ensues.  Ever since the maintenance grant system was disbanded for students starting university in 2016, student debt has moved from a graduate tax to a poor tax.  Those from lower-income families receive a greater maintenance loan, as their families cannot provide as much financial support.  In the short-term this increases the affordability of university for lower-income families, however it leads to greater accumulation of debt.  This deters students from applying to university as the certainty of adult life dictated by a mountain of debt is off-putting to say the least.  And when coming from a background of financial insecurity, this prospect is even more daunting.

Newcastle must take its share of the blame.  For certain subjects, bursaries and scholarships – awarded to students from disadvantaged areas to bridge this equality gap – are not awarded when on unpaid placement.  This significantly reduces the chances of students who need such bursaries to survive at university of having the same opportunities as other students.  Perhaps, then, we should look here first to change these policies.  If Newcastle wishes to be a beacon of equality, it should begin by changing this.

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