It’s freshers’ week, alcohol is flowing and conversation is in full awkward swing but in only a matter of minutes that inevitable, sobering question will be dropped: “What school did you go to?” “You wouldn’t have heard of it,” I anxiously reply, “It was a… state school.”
Conversations such as these are all too common at our country’s leading universities. They represent a middle class culture forcing many working class students to feel something of an immigrant in a foreign land – a class outsider in a world of home county privilege. These institutions remain, much to their apparent dismay, as great bastions of a certain exclusive culture exuding its bourgeois sensibilities and, in doing so, alienating students from more modest backgrounds and even putting them off applying in the first place. The few working class students who do manage to break the glass ceiling are given little choice but to suffer from acute class consciousness often resulting in indifference and, worse yet, alienation: in order to fit in, they must change the way they speak, dress and act or risk being accepted as a novelty. Not an easy task.
Only 7% of children in the country are privately educated yet data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that 21.9% of undergraduates at our university came from independent schools. Telling as this is, we still have a comparatively low intake of independent school students when the entirety of the Russell Group (representing the country’s leading twenty-four universities) is taken into consideration. Oxford’s mammoth 42.6% tops the table – who would have guessed? This trend means that not only are independent schools over represented in our top universities but, consequentially, in our top professions. Students from these schools make for 70% of high court judges, 51% of medics and 50% of cabinet ministers. There was once a time when the ‘Eton Empire’ appeared dead for good, but it’s made quite a remarkable comeback of late. Even our current PM wears that same school tie along with eighteen others before him.
Though there are other significant reasons, the issue of a ‘posh culture’ is partly responsible for the lack of academically bright, working class students. Research published by the Sutton Trust, one of the few organisations dedicated to such issues, concluded that: “there are significant numbers of working-class children who, even though they have the academic ability to attend, choose to enter a non-selective institution instead.”
Why would talented school leavers subject themselves to becoming an outsider, as they would see it, at a top institution when they can study at a ‘lesser’ one wherein they feel socially comfortable? This is an all too often ignored explanation for the problem and not the increase in tuition fees along with other monetary concerns – or at least not just that.
We must do more to make working class students feel accepted which, inevitably, means getting more of them to apply in the first place. We’re already doing a lot, but not enough. It’s too easy to become complacent with issues like these but we mustn’t or we risk losing yet another generation of potentially great students to their class. Call me a pessimist, better yet a realist, but I can see little change in the near future.
Top universities have never been representative of wider society, despite their ‘best’ efforts, but let’s not pretend that this is solely the fault of the people at the top: it’s also an ingrained cultural lack of ambition at the bottom. As we regress from our post-war ‘meritocracy’ and usher into an age where social mobility is less accessible than it was to our parents or even grandparents, can we really say that worth matters more than birth?