Why is social inequality in higher education on the rise?

Rachel Yemm is a PhD student at the University of Lincoln studying History. Her research is on immigration, race and local media in the Midlands from 1960-1990.

Share this Post

More pupils from all social backgrounds are securing places at UK universities than ever before. Consequently the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going on to study at university is rising. However, despite this rise, social inequality in higher education remains a more prevalent issue than ever before.

Rising Social Inequality in Higher Education

Blair’s 1998 Labour government introduced tuition fees, along with a system of student loans. Between 1994 and 2001, the number of people from families living in areas with an average income of less than £10,950 attending university rose from 0.89% to 1.77%. Yet, for people living in areas with an average income over £21, 890, this figure rose from 10.04% to 19.6%. The gap between the two groups had almost doubled.

This trend has continued. According to statistics from the ‘Brilliant Club’, only 18% of state school children gain a place at a highly selective university. For pupils eligible for free school meals, representing the most economically deprived section of society, the figure is 2%. This contrasts with the 48% of privately educated children that do. It’s clear that these figures represent a real problem.

These high status and highly selective universities offer greater opportunities for their students. People that attend Russell Group universities earn on average 6% more than people who hold degrees from other institutions.

Although it is possible to secure meaningful, high paid employment without having attended university, access to higher education is a determining factor in a person’s potential economic success. Evidence shows that holders of degrees earn an average of £12,000 per year more than non-graduates. There is no denying that education is one of the greatest tools for social mobility.

Government Failure

It is no surprise, then, that students from poorer economic backgrounds have lower expectations. The current government issued guidance to the Office for Fair Access to address this. Universities are now required to regularly publish data about their applicant’s backgrounds, giving more transparency to the admissions process. According to this guidance, a ‘name blind‘ admissions policy should be in place by 2017.

But the admissions process is only one part of a much wider problem. Shining the spotlight on this process doesn’t help those whose social and economic situations prevent them from even applying. The rise in tuition fees to £9,000, alongside the removal of student grants and possible changes to the structure of loan repayments, has resulted in individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds becoming increasingly discouraged due to fear of debt.

The government’s 2015 spending review removed the full grant for students from households with an income below £25,000. This has now been replaced it with a loan. This penalises students who can’t rely on financial support from their families, who will now leave university with considerably more debt than those who can.

A graduate who takes out the maximum student loan will now pay back £60,000 before interest. This will be deducted at a rate of 9% from earnings over 21,000. Graduates who go on to take out a loan to fund postgraduate study will pay back an additional 6%. This comes on top of 12% National Insurance and 20% Income Tax, meaning that graduates will face deductions of up to 47% on earnings over £21,000.

The repayment of student loans has also suffered alterations. When tuition fees were raised, this blow was somewhat softened by the announcement that graduates were now required to pay back their loans at a rate of 9% over earnings over £21,000, rather than £15,000 as it was before. This figure was expected to rise every year in line with earnings, but the Chancellor has now proposed freezing the threshold until 2021.

The institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that this would result in the average graduate repaying £6,000 more. These changes would apply to all graduates, including those who had taken out student loans before the changes were made, fuelling fears that the government is free to change the repayment structure at any time.

Financial Burden on the Disadvantaged

A survey commissioned by the Sutton Trust in 2015 revealed that 78% of young people had concerns about the cost of living if they went to university. 68% had concerns about tuition fees and 58% about repaying student loans. It is unsurprising that these changes to fees and the removal of maintenance grants is off-putting, especially for those from poorer economic backgrounds.

This fear of debt has particularly impacted on the numbers of applicants for part time study as well as over 25s applying for full time study. For many people over 25, going to university represents a second chance to work towards a better future. Fear of debt is now preventing many from taking this chance.

Family background also had an impact on the likelihood of a child attending a highly selective university for many reasons. This comes down partially to the parent’s ability to provide material help and to pay for better education. For example, a recent study found that those attending private school are, on average, two years ahead of those attending state schools by age 16.

More fundamental issues lie in a child’s sense of ambition and motivation. Parents’ expectations and hopes for the future success of their children impacts dramatically on a child’s own sense of confidence and ambition. More practically, parents who have not attended university may not be in as good a position to support their children with things such as the admissions process, as those who have. This perpetuates the cycle of inequality of access and opportunity for working class children.

Signs of Hope?

These issues are deeply embedded into our social structure, making tackling them an incredibly difficult task. This does not mean to say that progress cannot be made. Initiatives such as the ‘Brilliant Club’ are making impressive steps across the country to widen access to highly selective universities for children from low participation schools.

The ‘Brilliant Club’ recruits PhD tutors to deliver university style teaching to exceptional pupils ranging from years six to twelve. Many of the pupils taking part fulfill a number of their specified criteria, which includes being the first generation in their family to attend university, being in receipt of free school meals, living in a neighbourhood with low progress rates to higher education or living in local authority care. The results have been impressive. The programme has undoubtedly had a profound effect on those involved and the charity is ever expanding its reach. There is, however, certainly no quick or easy fix for this problem.