This is Part III…for the start/parent page, click here.
The previous two blogs (Part I and Part II) have pointed out that working out who is capable of studying for a degree is tricky because a) grades at school aren’t necessarily a reflection of academic ability and b) going to university is not always a choice – in the sense of a being either a conscious decision or an option. It is clear that establishing who might be suitable and willing is difficult because not all pupils experience the same educational conditions. There is room for positive and negative influence in the home, neighbourhood, school and in society more generally, and it seems that pupils from the poorest backgrounds are the least likely to do well. Some people might go to university automatically, unthinkingly, while for others a degree may never cross their minds. If we imagine a spectrum where you progress along from the lowest level of affluence to the highest, the chances of doing well at school and wanting to be a university student just keep on rising.
We can see, then, that it’s pretty unlikely that the student population will reflect the same diversity as the national population. Although the number of people going to university is growing, and has really accelerated in the last fifteen years, the statistics on this still make for depressing reading. As you might expect, those at the top of the social pile make up a greater proportion of university students and graduates wherever you look. There is a huge amount of research on this, and how (and how much) it differs will vary between countries and universities. Some have a better record of educational equality than others. Across the 34-country OECD group, young people with parents who have completed school education are half as likely to go to university than those with one graduate parent. For children whose parents have even less education, it’s half again. The differences become more extreme when you look at the more selective universities. In the UK, the most advantaged are over seven times more likely to go to university than the least advantaged. Even more strikingly, children from private schools are 22 times more likely to attend elite universities than disadvantaged children from state schools. In the US, the University of California is perhaps unusual in that some of its colleges are more selective than others, but even the ‘pickiest’ (Berkeley) has almost a third of students on state scholarships awarded to poor students. Harvard has less than a tenth. Some universities might take high tuition fees from most students but spend some of that money on supporting poorer ones, and this subsidisation has become part of the tuition fee set-up in the UK. Tuition fees are also a sensitive issue when it comes to encouraging or deterring poorer people from studying, and I’ve written about this here.
In short, we can see that universities and university systems could be doing much better in admitting across the social spectrum. Of course the responsibility is not solely theirs, in that there are much bigger questions around inequality and education more generally. If the social and school situations were more even – fairer – then picking the ablest (or able enough) students would be far easier. If there is competition for university places, though, there are always going to be some people who have a (non-academic) advantage. Certain groups are simply better resourced in both information and financial terms, and are therefore better able to understand and negotiate the system. Where there is a strong hierarchy of universities, people who attend the best ones will usually have an advantage when it comes to applying for jobs (see here). Correcting this current structural inequality is an enormous task, and in some cases requires ‘undoing’ generations of history. Advantaged groups might not want to have their advantage reduced, as more competition makes their lives harder. Universities may also benefit from the status quo, and it can be in their best interests to give preference to the wealthiest applicants. Perhaps one of the most blatant examples can be seen in the big private universities in the US, who admit a proportion of students who are the children of their own alumni and large donors. I’m not saying that there are people at university now who shouldn’t be there, but it is important to realise that the situation as it stands is not as fair as it could be.
Behind all of this bubbles a further set of questions about how successful or engaged students might be at university, and how this looks for different groups. Which students are more likely to drop out, or get good grades, or have fun, or engage with university life? I might do future blogs on these topics, but in brief it is interesting to consider how university is experienced, and by whom. Young people from elite, ancient private schools who transfer to elite, ancient universities will encounter little in the way of culture shock. For someone who grew up in a different country, or in an area of significant poverty, it might feel like they’ve landed in a film set or a parallel universe. Also, elite universities tend to recruit more from middle class/wealthy groups; students from other social groups will find themselves in a minority, and bring with them quite different life experience, understandings, and perhaps political influences. This in itself could be quite challenging. Those short of money will have to work alongside their degrees, too. This reduces the amount of time they can spend on their studies or other parts of social and/or sporting life at university. This is an important area of study, and there is nuanced and sometimes striking variety between and across subject areas, genders, countries, university types, and so on. It’s complex but fascinating stuff!