By Lewis Martin
This month Oxford University, in conjunction with the Sutton Trust, launched a summer school aimed at attracting more “white, working class boys” to the university. While this has received praise from some sectors of society, it does not address the real reasons why working class people (not just boys or men) are not attending universities like Oxford.
Let’s be clear: Oxford is one of the most elite universities in the UK. Among its alumni are seven members of the current cabinet, including Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Phillip Hammond, ex-Prime Ministers including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and ex-US President Bill Clinton. This record alone suggests that Oxford is not the typical place for working class people to go and study, and the figures back that up. Only 8.8% of Oxford undergraduates admitted in 2015 came from backgrounds with a household income less than £16,000 a year*. The average student admitted to Oxford is likely to have come from a middle- to higher-earning background, and likely from a family in which attending university is the norm.
From a student’s perspective, this change of language feels startling at best, demeaning and denigrating at worst
Those 8.8% face prospects quite different from many working class people, who are rightly put off by how expensive and daunting it is to become a student. I have experienced this myself, as the first person in my family to attend university. I am acutely aware of the pressure to be successful as failure would have wider implications – I risk setting a precedent to my family that university isn’t something that could do them good. And that’s not to mention the lifelong debt I will carry after I graduate. Based on tuition fees alone I will owe £36,000 – that’s before the loan that allows me to pay my rent and afford to eat is taken into account.
Working class people are priced out of higher education on a regular basis. The continued and systemic marketisation of education is making it harder and harder for people to feel welcome and accepted at universities up and down the country if they don’t have the money to attend. In the last few years it has become commonplace to hear students described as ‘clients’ or ‘customers’. From a student’s perspective, this change of language feels startling at best, demeaning and denigrating at worst. Students should be viewed as students – not as people who are buying a product, but as people who have come to better our lives through the learning and the experiences of our time at university. By viewing students as simply buying a degree, university management miss out on essential aspects of why we got into this crazy system. Buzzwords such as ‘employability’ and ‘satisfaction’, which even creep into the manifestos of SU officers these days, essentially reduce the university experience into another part of the employment machine that tries to run our lives.
The other problem with these words is that they only appeal to a select group of people. Those coming to university to be ‘satisfied’ and to become ‘employable’ are not going to care about the debt that comes with it. They can trust in the hope that it will be paid off when they get good graduate jobs. However, the idea that university improves your employment prospects is becoming more of a myth every year. Upon leaving university over a third of graduates don’t get a job that matches the skills they’ve learnt. A degree does not offer certainty of employment any more, so for many working class people the investment is not something they can risk.
What is university meant to be about? The current system tells us that it is all about how many employability points each module gives you. Module guides now list the ‘transferable skills’ they’ll give you next to what you will learn about in the module. University has always been about learning, be it in the field of law, politics, history of art or any other area you care to name. It should be a place where your horizons are broadened and your views are challenged. The scope of education has been narrowed to just reproducing supposedly employable skills instead of teaching people about a wider subject, introducing people to knowledge and perspectives they may never have encountered before. Like almost every aspect of modern life, education is being reoriented to move solely towards the supposedly all-encompassing goal of employment.
only large-scale action will remake universities into fully inclusive communities
The increase in tuition fees to £9,250 a year, the increased amount of debt this entails, the pressure to be successful this creates, the persisting general sense that universities are only for select groups of people – these are the real reasons why working class people choose not to attend, and no summer school is going to change that.
If universities want students from more diverse backgrounds to attend then they need to start charging less money in fees to cut down the debt that students walk away with. They need to start using more inclusive language to keep the focus on the broad experience attending university is, not the product that management wants it to be. And we all need to fight against the marketisation of education by rejecting the TEF and by boycotting the NSS with UCU and NUS. These are big asks, but only large-scale action will remake universities into fully inclusive communities of people looking to learn and have fun, not to get their degree and sod off.
*Editor’s note: This statistic is from in-year figures for the 2015-16 academic year. End-year figures are promised in Oxford’s admission statistics material, but have not yet been made available through their website.
Featured image via Versa News