It’s time to address the classism in our higher education system

Universities, and higher education in general, have not strayed far from the mainstream media’s attention in the past year. From contention over further raises and stratification of the tuition fee system, to raging debates surrounding free speech and the proficiency of campus ‘Safe spaces’, higher education has been at the forefront of public attention. Yet there exists a serious and wide-ranging debate that, through its own fault or otherwise, the media and public attention has largely overlooked; the classist nature of higher education, and the access of graduates into the sphere of higher employment.

There are a few disclaimers that must be addresses before this issue can be properly addressed. Primarily, by no means does this critique of classism, inherent to higher education, reflect a desire to abolish the current system of maintenance loans and grants – quite the opposite. The system of student finance has experienced great success in providing higher education to those who otherwise would have been excluded from such arenas. Indeed, a critic of the loan system need only look to the United States to undermine their own argument; where access to the highest standard of higher education requires an exorbitant degree of financial cost – to attend Harvard, including accommodation and associated costs, requires on average $63,205. Similarly, highlighting the classist nature of higher education and the internship system by no means detracts from the progress made already in creating what largely Conservative rhetoric describes as ‘social mobility’. Grant schemes, the tuition loan system and diversity schemes have been an exemplary step in the right direction, benefiting those of a lower socio-economic standing, BEM members of society and others disadvantaged by the social and economic conditions facing Britain today.

Yet there remains a prevalent issue within access to higher education, and access to the graduate job market, that limits the potential of our most capable members of society – primarily on socio-economic grounds. To truly address the inherent classism in the higher education system, it is important to focus upon three key areas of the current system enacted in the United Kingdom; access to higher institutions, the stability of those of poorer backgrounds within higher education, and access to the graduate job market upon graduation.

Let us first address access to higher education itself. It is no secret that educational success is linked to socio-economic position. From the use of tutors, to access to higher quality education through private schooling, the ability to finance greater standards of education separates those of a higher socio-economic position from those who rely upon free education in the state system. OECD research into the issue has found that, not only does income disparity and access to private education create a rift between those of different socio-economic positions, but that those whose economic fortunes have allowed for higher qualities of education have greater inequality of economic success than those who lacked such opportunity. Similarly, the rhetoric surrounding loans for tuition dissuades many from higher education, seeking instead to earn as soon as they leave higher education for fear of financial insecurity. Though there are cases which subvert such a trend, the statistical data is nothing short of unchallengeable evidence of the essential classism in the route towards higher education.

There is perhaps a simpler way of demonstrating this for those who argue ‘it is not about your position, but your work ethic’ –  according to research from the Higher Education Statistics agency, the academic year of 2012/13 was a record year for admittance into higher education for those of a lower socio-economic standing. That figure stood at merely 32.3%. Critics may argue that in 2017, those from state schools made up just under 90% of students accepted into higher education – yet fail to recognise the true nature of such figures. Of the total students in secondary education (including those in 6th form or otherwise), only 6.5% are educated privately – yet over 10% form the body of accepted students in higher education. Given that roughly 20% of the total school students in the UK go on to attend University, that 10% of students attended the statistically insignificant private school demographic is not only startling, but evidence of structural inequality in opportunity.

Nonetheless, recent years have seen a significant rise in the proportion of those from worse socio-economic backgrounds gaining access to higher education. By no means, however, does the issue of classism end with access to university. Given the significant increase in cost of living, whether through the extortionate student rental market, incentivisation of the student ‘party’ culture or rising cost of simple subsistence, the external costs of higher education continue to rise as the student loan system becomes more restrictive under Conservative governance. As a result, many students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds find themselves having to balance employment as well as tuition. The University of Birmingham, for example, lists the average cost of one year of rent and associated costs at £7,308 – almost double the minimum maintenance loan that most students receive. Without significant financial backing, students from worse off financial positions face either deferment or employment throughout university, simply to meet the rising costs associated with higher education. Such requirements for subsistence has severe impacts upon the ability to study out of contact hours, leading to greater stress, higher propensity for mental health issues and overall lower academic results. In this regard, students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds face more numerous, and without question increasingly significant, hurdles in achieving better results from higher education than those of a more privileged economic position.

This is before addressing the most significant aspect of the inherent classism present to the higher education system; access to the graduate employment market. Popular rhetoric would have the casual observer believe that it is simply a matter of ‘working harder’ and ‘wanting it more’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Access to the graduate job market is now, more than ever, predicated upon previous experience and internships, especially in London, where a significant proportion of these opportunities are based. The fact that the average median monthly rent in London alone exceeds £1,400 is evidence alone that the internship system is indirectly discriminatory to those of poorer socio-economic backgrounds, or those who resides outside of the nation’s capital. Yet there exists a culture through which both wealth and nepotism is the best route towards graduate jobs. Those with contacts in large scale firms – especially those with cheap family or friend access to the London housing market – find themselves in a privileged position to access the largely unpaid internship market. The recent expose in the Guardian, written by Amalia Ilgner, is perhaps the best example of this. Having interned at Monocle magazine, Amalia found herself in a position of significant responsibility – having been accountable for duties including client interaction, data analysis and content contribution. Her compensation for a nine-hour shift extended to only £30 – at around £3.33 an hour, it covered little more than travel and lunch expenses. Given that employers inherently favour those with previous experience (Internships being the best route for young professionals to prove such experience), the high costs of accessing these opportunities excludes many sections of society who, despite equal effort, dedication and commitment to the dream of social mobility, are excluded simply by socio-economic position.

Though there has been a distinguishable degree of progress towards an equitable playing field for graduates, it is simply not enough. Student finance, though a step in the right direction, disincentivises many from the sphere of higher education, with fears of future financial insecurity. For those who do access the higher education system, rising costs of living restrict their ability to study, with the necessity of employment increasingly infringing upon education and leading to poorer results. For those who survive such constraints, a lack of connections and financial stability places them in an inherently unequal playing field within the graduate job market. It is time for society – from government to the public – to address the inherent inequality and classism rife in our higher education system; to create a system in which our most talented members of society – regardless of class, race or socio-economic position – can truly rise to the top and create a better future for Britain. If Britain truly believes in the possibility of social mobility, it is about time we systematically started acting like it.


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