By Genevieve Redgrave, Chloe Coules, Emily Johnstone and Eloise Sacares
With Photography by Marlena Zemsta
“It’s abhorrent, disgusting, and unfathomable” was the response of Alisha Lobo, Students’ Union Community Officer, to the University of Bath’s social inclusion ranking of 112th out of 115 univerisites across England and Wales. Despite active promotion of its high league table status across all social media channels, the University’s silence on this particular ranking is very telling. To many students, however, these figures come as little surprise. In Bath Time’s recent survey of 100 students, only 30% of respondents said they believe that the University is inclusive to underrepresented groups.
An argument that commonly arises is that Bath’s student make-up is simply a reflection of the 94.6% white, middle-class city it is situated in. The response to a further claim that this acts as a deterrent to diverse students is summed up best by Alisha Lobo.
“This is the poorest and most pathetic excuse for not doing constructive, pre-emptive and student focused work to address diversity issues. If you have the resources and support students will come. It disgusts me beyond belief if people say it’s only because of the surrounding area. We are a campus university, and we also have a big say on the surrounding area – we can make change.”
Change for socioeconomic diversity?
It’s the general perception amongst those at University here and around the country that Bath attracts students from a particular financial background. This is echoed by one survey respondent who stated “Bath is for the rich kids”. Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, unsurprised by our survey responses stated that “if you look at our student body, we have a large number of privileged students and a fair number from disadvantaged backgrounds, but a big gap in the middle compared to other universities. This emphasises the difference between student groups, leading to division and exclusion. It also ‘sets the tone’ for how the University operates, as it is guided by the student body who is mostly privileged, so privileged students dominate thinking and create the ‘norm’”.
The University’s efforts to improve economic diversity seem to be making progress, with approximately £4.4 million dedicated to bursaries. Any student with a household income below £25,000 now automatically qualifies for the Bath Bursary of £3,000 per academic year, subject to meeting Widening Participation Criteria. This includes living in an area of low participation in Higher Education, attending a school with below average performance, receiving benefits or being a young carer. There are an unlimited number of these bursaries available and according to internal University research, students in receipt of these are in the strongest financial position at university. Amelia, a bursary recipient, stated that whilst she recognises its importance in enabling her to attend university, she feels unequipped from the institution to manage this large sum of money.
Undoubtedly, the Bath Bursary is invaluable for the students who receive it but there remains a disparity in the process. The bursary is only available to students applying in their first year, meaning that any significant changes in financial situation are unaccounted for in subsequent years of study. Although the Hardship Fund is available to all students, this functions on a one-off basis, which is not a reasonable long-term alternative.
The requirement for students to meet Widening Participation criterion is also questionable. Mike Nicholson explained that this exists to confirm the eligibility of students for financial aid as some students may appear to have a low household income but have money tied up in property or non-income related assets. However, it is not inconceivable that there are students who do not meet these criteria and legitimately require financial aid, as well as students who have family non-income wealth that still meet these criteria. Whilst these do often highlight an individual’s financial situation, these are not direct indicators for every student out there.
A select 50 students are also awarded a Gold Scholarship, who despite meeting the same application criteria as bursary holders, receive £2000 more per year. Gold Scholars also receive greater support to navigate their journey at Bath through alumni mentoring, personal development, volunteering and outreach, pastoral support and placement advice. Mike Nicholson acknowledged the unfairness in the fine line between the two, reporting that the University aims to apply successful elements of the programme to future bursary holders.
To date, it remains unclear as to why two students in almost identical situations receive very different opportunities. It is important to note, however, the additional support given to Gold Scholars appears to come with extra strings attached. The terms and conditions for this particular award imply that the University reserves the right to withdraw the award if the student doesn’t meet the annual requirements, including 50 hours of volunteering. Although this may improve employability prospects, it is frustrating that these students have already overcome the odds to secure a place at the University and are still expected to go above and beyond to prove their value.
In an effort to attract students from underrepresented backgrounds, the University explained they are working with charities and government bodies, including the Welsh government specifically. The University also funds the On Track to Bath scheme which aims to help local A-level students from high deprivation locations. This is helpful to those in Bath’s surrounding areas such as Twerton which has been listed as one of the most deprived areas of the UK. However, there are large discrepancies between the different areas of Bath, making the scope of this programme’s outreach questionable. According to the 2015 Indices of Multiple Deprivation, BANES is one of the least deprived authorities in the country ranking 247 out of 326, where 1 is the most deprived authority.
Mike Nicholson did recognise these limitations, noting that the programme does only have a local sphere of influence, which he explained the University are trying to improve. It does however, remain a question of whilst the University are helping these students to get in, what efforts are being made to support these students once they arrive on campus?
The squeeze in the middle
Financial support for the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ with a household income between £25,000 and £42,000 is extremely limited. Only 27 means-tested bursaries were awarded to these students for the current academic year. It remains unclear what other financial support these students are eligible for; the majority of our survey respondents said they were unaware of any financial support that is available from the University. The Hardship Fund is limited and capped at £3,500 and is only awarded in exceptional circumstances. According to the University’s website, only limited assistance can be given to students who have recently experienced unforeseen changes to their financial circumstances, which in a long four-year course could happen to any individual. The application process seems somewhat intrusive too, it requires the provision of multiple bank statements to prove how this financial difficulty has happened. In a time of extreme struggle, this can only be an added pressure.
Students across the UK have also reported that the financial pressure of university has a negative impact on their well-being. In 2014, The Times found one in three students suffered from insomnia due to cash-flow concerns. According to NatWest’s 2019 Student Index, almost half of students are “extremely stressed” and 42% reported concerns about their financial situation. It comes as little surprise that the fine balancing act of money management places significant strain on students, with over 30% of respondents using their overdraft to cover rent and household bills.
This is extremely problematic for most of Bath’s students. Rent for student halls routinely exceeds the maintenance loan available to the majority of students. With single, standard room prices on campus starting at £4,180 per academic year this already exceeds the minimum maintenance loan. The University charges up to £8,110 for any student wanting the privacy of an en-suite on campus. This eye-watering cost is more than double the minimum available student loan. The soaring prices of student rent stretch beyond the walls of campus too, with Bath taking the number one spot as the most expensive location for student accommodation in the Student Rent Index. The student accommodation in Bath city costs almost £100 more than the national weekly average, leaving students having to find alternatives to cough up the extra cash.
Unsurprisingly, such financial pressures have an impact on the student body. Bath Time’s survey has revealed that 66% of student respondents stated that the cost of living in Bath has had a negative impact on their enjoyment of university, their mental health and wellbeing. Only 21% reported that they had never struggled financially at Bath. Although Mike Nicholson suggests this is a general issue with the student loan system, which relies heavily on parental contributions, it remains unclear the extent of actions the University are taking to relieve this pressure on the squeezed middle.
The cost of sport
It is important to note, that Bath was the first University in the country to provide sports scholarships, is home to some of the world’s greatest athletes and was awarded the Sports University of the Year 2018. Despite these accolades, not all students who are repping blue and gold are in a position to receive extra funding. As a result, they may quickly find themselves facing unforeseen charges of joining a sports team.
A high-performance athlete, who is selected to represent the University at BUCS level, is expected to pay costs of up to £300 for membership, kit and performance fees – a requirement before even stepping onto a competitive field. For those on a development or recreational squad, club membership fees of £36 seem redundant without actual game time or staff coaching. Sports members have also expressed their anger to us at being forced to buy kit worth £100 prior to selection for competitive squads taking place.
In an attempt to improve the financial inclusivity of sports, some teams have reportedly managed to off-set certain costs through sponsorship and kit-swaps. The SU are also attempting to create a sports-specific hardship fund and have made a number of provisions including Bath Active to offer free recreational sports. This may widen participation for those who cannot afford the steep £299 campus gym membership which recently removed their tier pricing system for returners as well as on or off-peak memberships, making it even less affordable.
There does remain a large demographic disparity between free and fee-paying students, with only 13% of BUCS members identifying as BME. Sports that traditionally stem from private school backgrounds, such as hockey or lacrosse, tend to have a systemic bias against underrepresented groups that leaves these students left out throughout the country. Taster sessions run by the SU and sports clubs are on offer, such as those for international students to try English core sports in a relaxed atmosphere. However, these can often get lost within busy academic timetables. Participation is also made worse by the reality that many of these highly competitive sports, including the development squads, are comprised of seasoned players. Ultimately, this excludes the majority of newcomers purely due to a lack of prior opportunity.
In an attempt to alleviate some of these issues, the SU have made Welfare and Inclusivity Officers a mandatory position in all clubs. However, due to the inconsistent nature of this role within different sports, some officers acting as a diversity officer have reported to us that they did not receive appropriate training. The WIOs we spoke to also expressed their concerns about the value of the training they received and suggested that they need more regular contact with the SU. Without this, they believe little can be done to make the necessary changes that sport at Bath desperately needs.
Tom Sawko, Sports Officer for the SU responded to the social inclusion issue in our sport with “It needs to be said, diversity in sport is definitely not a finished product. I won’t tell you that we’re proud of the demographics that we have in sport, but we are proud of what we are doing and the fact that we are moving towards a more diverse sporting community. This is a sector-wide issue, and we are definitely not alone, so ensuring that we are keeping up-to-date with the good practices of other SU’s is of paramount importance”.
The barriers of hidden costs
It is important to recognise that sport at Bath is not just exercise, but a main component of the social lifestyle for our students. Multiple individuals have reported to us that they have felt pressured to make frivolous purchases on Score costumes or Team Bath attire in an effort to fit in. According to our survey, it is pressure to socialise that has led many to feel left out of occasions and friendship groups if they cannot afford to go out as much as their peers.
Bath Chronicle reported that Bath is one of the least affordable towns in the UK and also found the city to be the second most expensive student town outside of London. As a result, the cost of attending regular social events can soon feel like unnecessary spending. This is potentially only made worse by popular University events such as Freshers’ Week or Summer Ball, which are highlights of student experience, costing up to £50 purely for the ticket. For the squeezed middle this means not everyone can go to the ball.
Bath’s poor social inclusion ranking is deeply rooted in the experiences of all of its students, especially those who are seemingly left behind or disadvantaged. The University seem well attuned to these issues, having already established an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team to promote inclusivity and accessibility on campus. It is clear from their website, however, that much of their work focuses on training and policy but the University must stretch beyond the limits of planning and documentation to bring meaningful change, for all, to campus
Overall, it remains difficult to shake the tokenistic feeling of the photographs and promises which fuel the University’s marketing machine. Limitations in sporting representation and disparities in access to bursaries highlights widespread and persistent gaps in the inclusion of disadvantaged students. The reported difficulties continuously facing students indicates that the University is failing to put into practice the commitments it continues to make to building an inclusive campus environment. The barriers to inclusion must be broken down before the University can truly fulfil its pledge for all students to feel that they truly #BelongAtBath.