For evidence our class system is alive and kicking, look no further than higher education, where the wealthiest school leavers are still nearly 10 times more likely to attend the most competitive universities as the most disadvantaged, according to UCAS. This is supported by figures published by the Department for Education which reveal pupils from fee-paying schools are twice as likely to attend Russell Group universities and five times as likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge as state school pupils.
In addition, disadvantaged students are more than three times as likely to live at home (45%) while studying for a degree than wealthier students (13%), according to a 2018 study by The Sutton Trust, resulting in a very different university experience.
Social inequality starts from birth and, in the UK, even hampers graduates with the same qualifications. Paul Gregg, an economist who served on the government’s Commission on Social Mobility, told the Financial Times that graduates with exactly the same qualifications earn substantially less if they come from deprived backgrounds than an affluent ones.
This points to an issue with discrimination by those who recruit for industry. But having a narrower network of contacts to help you into a career is a hindrance too: nepotism isn’t a route in. It’s also evidence of a lack of guidance and support for graduates – especially those who are the first in their families to attain degrees – flying the university nest.
Think about your first job. Did you get in by doing unpaid work experience or an internship? Who enabled you, financially, to do this? Who let you stay in their house, and who paid your travel? Not everyone can shop around for their dream career: many must take what’s available.
Academia and the best jobs shouldn’t be the preserve of the middle classes. We’d do well to remind ourselves why getting more students from low-income families into university and top jobs benefits society as a whole.
The Sutton Trust reports that just a modest improvement in the UK’s social mobility – to the average level across western Europe – could see an increase in annual GDP of approximately 2%, which, in 2016, was equivalent to £590 per person or £39 billion to the UK economy as a whole.
Stop people from fulfilling their potential and you get skills shortages, plus a lack of diversity and representation at the top of industry.
One attempt to reduce elitism in higher education came in the form of maintenance grants for students from lower income backgrounds. The full grant of £3,387 a year was offered to those whose families earned £25,000 a year or less. But these were replaced by maintenance loans from September 2016, by then-Chancellor George Osborne.
It’s too early to tell if this has put off poorer students from attending university, but it’s broadly expected to have done so. The move to replace maintenance grants with loans – plus interest – means the poorest students are now racking up the biggest debts from continuing with higher education - in excess of £57k. In many cases, the loan barely covers rent, so students are working long hours alongside their degree to cover the cost of living, books and socialising.
Earlier this week, Russell Group chief Tim Bradshaw called on the Government to bring back the maintenance grant to improve diversity at universities, and will propose other financial measures, including a ‘living wage’ to students who had been eligible for free school meals, ahead of the Government’s review of post-18 education.
We’d like to see more than sensible financial measures put in place for students from lower income backgrounds. There’s a massive information gap that hasn’t yet been bridged by our education system because, rightly or wrongly, it has traditionally focused on academia, rather than schooling students in life as well.
If soft skills were taught in schools, as part of the curriculum, and at university, we could better prepare our young people with weak – or absent – support networks to flourish after graduation.
At the moment, our young people look to their elders for guidance and support after university. But not everyone’s parents have been to university, reached the top of industry, or smashed through glass ceilings. And I’ll bet none of them have accrued university debts of £50,000+ for a three-year degree.
The current lack of knowledge – whether that’s about careers, finance and debt, or mental health – gives rise to concern or complacency, both of which have disturbing consequences. In this complex, fast-changing, unequal world, the education system needs to school students in essential life skills, as well as academic qualifications, so it’s not only those with a head start in life that survive and thrive.
England is now the most expensive place to attend university in the world. This – coupled with the existence of industries that still encourage unpaid work experience and a lack of support for graduates entering the workplace – allows elitism to flourish and halts social mobility. And, so, everyone loses.