Diversity and Higher Education

If you didn’t already know, the private school debate has resurfaced again. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have pledged to boost the number of pupils they admit from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sounds uncontroversial, right? Not quite. In a not entirely unsurprising turn, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) decided to give their two cents on the subject matter. According to the HMC’s Executive Director, this move could lead to ‘discrimination based on the class [students] were born into.’ His solution? Universities should expand their student numbers to admit as many ‘truly suitable candidates‘ rather than ‘deny places to UK students based on their class.’ 

Taking an appropriate detour, two weeks ago, I came to a shocking revelation about my course mates. To set the scene, the lecturer was looking at family and how it related to educational achievement, and we were given the examples of three families who varied in their class. We were then told the likely academic outcome of the children. The lecturer asked us to discuss why this might be.

What preceded blew my mind. Apparently, in my peer’s eyes, in the UK, if you work hard enough and don’t give up and are ambitious, you can achieve. Inequality was because working-class parents probably didn’t value education and had the wrong attitude. Never mind the statistics which say birth class is the most significant predictor of where you end up in life, or the Millennium Cohort Study findings that over 95% of working-class mothers want their infants to go on to higher education.

By that point in the lecture I wanted to leave – even though I love my subject, I couldn’t bear to hear this about the group that I belonged to and the people I grew up with. But I know I can’t blame my peers. We hear these caricatures and stereotypes about the working class all the time. We see it in movies and the media, the drunk alcoholic parents, the chavs, the hoodlum, the benefit scrounger. Even politicians, MPs and Ofsted chiefs seem to continuously spout about a lack of drive, a poverty of aspiration, and a culture of poverty. If that’s all my peers ever see, then their views make sense.

But that’s why class diversity in higher education matters; because my peers and the rest of us at university are more likely to end up in positions of power within society. 85 percent of MP’s have a university education and so do virtually all judges; these are also amongst the professions dominated by the privately educated (32% and 79% respectively). Private school pupils are 1.5 times more likely to go to a Russell Group University than their state school counterparts. For society to be fairer and to put an end to the stereotypes of the working class, higher education needs to reflect the rest of society so that those who influence and rule society, through the passport university gives them, have a wider array of experiences and opinions.

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