Working Class Students Forgotten at University

Marti Stelling (she/her)

Poorer families are being failed by elitist institutions

(Image: University of York)

There is very little information given to lower income families about loans, repayments, and housing costs. In turn, this contributes to the low population of working-class students attending university.

Misinformation surrounding the costs of higher education keeps universities dominated by those from more affluent backgrounds. Many families are unaware of how Student Finance works and how much help their child can receive from bursaries and loans.

According to the Department of Education, white males from low-income families are the least likely group to attend university. Similarly, The Guardian have found that half of universities in England have fewer than 5% poor white students.

The Guardian article bases its findings on a report from the National Educational Opportunity Network, which found that children in receipt of free school meals are least likely of any group to attend university, topped only by those from Traveller backgrounds.

However, universities are doing their part to encourage those from diverse backgrounds to access higher education. Contextual offers and summer schools are often offered to those who are less likely to have accessed university, such as those from lower economic and BAME backgrounds.

UCAS reported that in 2020, a record 23.3% of UK 18-year-olds from low participation neighbourhoods were accepted to study a full-time undergraduate degree through UCAS, compared to 14% in 2011. Similarly, the entry rate of state school students in England who, while aged 15, were in receipt of free school meals, has increased from 13.2% in 2011 to 20.3% in 2020. 

In 2017, students at the University of York voted in a campus wide referendum to create a Network which represents working-class students at York. The Network promotes equality, encourages participation and advances for working-class students through campaigning, educational conferences and social activities.

Harleen Dhillon, the 2021/2022 Officer stated that her priority was to value students at the University “regardless of their background”, and to “introduce a platform for students to express their opinions about how their interests could be better represented at university, and what they would like to see on campus to make their experience better.”

Student Finance is means-tested, meaning that a student from a low-income household will receive more in loans than their more affluent peers. This is the premise, but in reality, it can work out a little more complicated. Individuals with parents who earn more than the cut-off for the maximum student loan often find themselves in a situation where their loan does not cover their rent.

The idea is that their parents will be able to subsidise the amount left over. In reality, this is often not an option. Factors such as paying off a mortgage, supporting other family members, debt, and high costs of living are not accounted for. Many parents simply cannot support their child through university, meaning students must work full time while studying.

So, what change needs to happen? Parents and school-aged children need to be taught about the financial support they are entitled to while at university. Similarly, major reforms need to be made in the student loans system. Many working-class students are left in an unfair situation where they cannot afford rent, let alone living expenses. This creates a barrier for students attending university. 

Vision spoke to Laura Blackburn, the Working Class and Social Mobility Officer for 2022/2023, who stated that:

“In addition to the unfairness of how the means testing works for Student Finance, the process to
apply for bursaries at the University of York is equally unfair. York is one of the most expensive cities
to live in and the University should have additional bursaries to reflect that. An income considered as
“good enough” by Student Finance to support children at University is not the case when it comes to
supporting children at the University of York. If the University of York is committed to widening
participation, this needs to change!

“As the new Working Class and Social Mobility Officer for 2022/2023 I want to create a stronger
community for working-class students and recognise their achievements of being accepted into the
University. I want to increase the presence of the working-class network and make our voices heard
in a predominantly upper-class environment. Not only this, but support working-class students to
navigate an unknown climate, as we deserve to be here just as much as any other student!”

Education should be for everyone. In order for everyone to access university, the government must work with schools and working-class families to create equal opportunities for accessing university.