THE BLOG
02/09/2015 13:19 BST | Updated 02/09/2016 06:59 BST

Russell Group Universities, You're a Disgrace

Russell Group universities, you're a disgrace. Your silence on maintenance grants shows your contempt for widening access for the poorest students, and your total lack of commitment to playing a role in reducing educational inequality.

While a lot of the debate around maintenance grants has focussed on the overall impact that their loss will have, I'm here to talk about the complicit role that Russell Group institutions play in perpetuating an elitist education system in our country.

Said institutions are culpable for sustaining an education system riddled with inequality, where predominantly white and middle to upper class students dominate Oxbridge, Durham, LSE, UCL, among others. And yet, when cuts to maintenance grants threaten to either maintain the status quo in terms of the Russell Group's appalling lack of diversity, or make it worse, we hear nothing.

Of course, the Russell Group blames students for not getting the right grades. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that schooling plays a fundamental part in a young person's progression to university. However, on the lack of diversity within the Group, blame falls squarely on the elitist shoulders of these institutions. The levels of inequity in the system cannot be blamed on students, when the disparity between opportunities for poor and rich students has remained consistently marked for the past twenty years.

Earlier this year, the Department for Education released statistics demonstrating that pupils from independent schools are more than twice as likely to go to a Russell Group university.

Worse, you are five times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge. Or, should you even contemplate studying in London, the cost of living is becoming so extortionately high that studying at a London institution is no longer a viable prospect - unless you have parents who are able to bankroll you the money required to rent and live in the most expensive city in the country, or get into serious debt (overdrafts are a thing too, Osborne).

Yet when we talk about university access, we are peddled the same story time and time again, of tuition fees having actually expanded access to university, with more applications from the poorest students than ever before. Jo Johnson himself wrote last week in the Evening Standard, boasting of the access that universities have given to poorer students, and claiming that an expansion of student numbers will facilitate further social mobility.

On the raw figures, yes, expansion of the HE sector has resulted in more disadvantaged students going to university. Yet there is a very different story that is being glossed over by the Westminster elite, that of the fact that the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering the most selective universities has not changed for the past twenty years. The elite are still elite, and they are getting away with it.

Russell Group universities should not be allowed to expand while their record on diversity is so poor, and while their nonchalant approach stifles social mobility for young people. If they are not prepared to speak out about cuts to maintenance grants, which tangibly places more debt on poorer students than the rich, then there cannot be a genuine claim to committing to 'widening participation'.

Interesting arguments get trotted out as to why changes to grants and fees are not of relevance. On the face of it, students will be able to access more money through a maintenance loan than they do through the current grant system. It is not paid up front, as we are aware, and so some might argue that this is more a cosmetic change than anything else, with a psychological impact on the minds of young people rather than an economic one.

Psychology matters though. In a study conducted by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) earlier this year, they found that students from lower socio economic backgrounds were twenty percentage points more likely to go to university where they live because of costs.

When we consider that universities like Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL come with hefty living costs and rents, you would expect these institutions to be speaking up about the risk that maintenance grants poses to the recruitment of these students.

It also shows that Jo Johnson's sweeping statements about student numbers show a lack of any basic comprehension of young people and how choices are made about our futures. Money matters, and so does location. Russell Group universities are poor at recruiting students from the North, and cuts to support will only maintain that.

The reality is that Russell Group institutions stand to gain the most from these reforms. If the Treasury is able to reduce the so-called financial burden of supporting students from poorer backgrounds going to university, expansion of the higher education sector becomes more viable as universities are able to self finance through charging fees. While this is not exclusive to Russell Group universities, they are desperate for expansion in order to fund their research activities and compete on an international level with universities that have endowments they could only dream of.

Aspirations around expansion means that diversity is treated as an afterthought, an irritant that universities have to deal with once it becomes time to submit their reports to the Office for Fair Access. There are clear choices that elite universities could be taking about where to put their money; instead of funding glorious new buildings, they could be investing in intensive outreach programmes, or in making accommodation affordable at university for students, or in providing better and more targeted scholarships. But, all these things would require a commitment to values related to diversity, which is essentially non existent.

It is time to get real about educational inequality. Elitism in higher education in the UK is rife and it is time for both the government, and university leaders to spend a few minutes to give a bit of thought to what it really means to have education as a vehicle for social mobility.

The first step is by speaking out against the disgraceful cuts to student support and maintenance grants, and protecting funding that really makes a difference of students. So, Russell Group, step up.