Keir Starmer
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How can universities improve lower income representation?

Getting a place to study at a Russell group university is a difficult task for any prospective student. Still, it is sometimes much harder for students who are going against the societal grain that is pre-mapped for them. Working-class, or low-income students, are massively underrepresented in Russell group universities, with the gap between the rich and the poor at university being the widest it has been in a decade.

Generally, there are three-tiers of university action: initial outreach to low-income students before applications, support during applications and admissions, and holistic support for students once they arrive. An assessment on how universities address these three strands is paramount for then scrapping, amending and proposing new solutions that ensure universities are doing their bit. But effective solutions cannot be reached without questioning the ‘why?’. Why should disadvantaged students be represented more?

Arguably, a barrier to addressing underrepresentation is due to this not being a topic of mainstream discussion. Applause has recently been given to elite universities such as Oxford because 69% of its offers for 2019/2020 went to state-educated students, a 4.6% increase from 2018/2019. The same goes for the University of Warwick, where 57.7% of the whole student body are state-educated, according to The Sunday Times’s latest Good University Guide. Unmistakably, this is a massive stride forward in breaking down the perception of elite universities being inaccessible to state-educated students.

57.7% of Warwick’s student body are state-educated, according to The Sunday Times.

What is omitted in university prospectuses, however, is the percentage of students from deprived areas. Currently, the University of Liverpool is the Russell Group university with the highest percentage of such students, standing at 10%. Other Universities close to the 10% mark were Cardiff University with 9.4% and the University of Sheffield with 9.3%. The percentage of students from deprived areas at Warwick stands at 4%.

Other measures are useful in highlighting how underrepresented low-income students are in higher education. A student’s previous entitlement to free school meals is a valuable indicator. In 2017-2018, 26.3% of pupils eligible for free school meals went to university compared to 44.9% of students who did not receive free meals. To add, the most underrepresented socio-economic groups at university are not just state-educated but working-class BAME students, mature students, and recent care leavers.

Surprisingly to some, the most underrepresented of all groups are white working-class boys. Just 9 percent of white males on free school meals aged 18 go on to attend university. A report by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) revealed that only 3% of students at Warwick and Oxford University are white working-class boys. At the University of Cambridge, only 2% of students are from this background, with Durham University taking the lead with 4% of students. From this, having a state education should not be used as the benchmark variable for measuring social inclusion. By only looking at one characteristic of under-representation, we have the danger of students from the most deprived groups being left behind or not prioritised.

Having a state education should not be used as the benchmark variable for measuring social inclusion.

Contextual offers aim to increase representation at the application and admissions stages. These offers admit students with grades up to two grades lower than the standard entry requirements. Individual universities set the criteria for who receives a contextual offer. Furthermore, more universities are expanding their criteria to students who are recent care leavers such as at the University of York and the University of Manchester. All of this data can be easily compiled from what a student enters into their UCAS application.

However, this means that useful information about a student’s socio-economic background is omitted. Details such as if they are the first in their family to go to university, received free school meals, or if their household income is less than £25,000. At Warwick, all of these indicators are looked at when deciding a student’s entitlement to a bursary.

There is also the question of if these offers are discriminatory or unfair to other students who worked hard to meet the required grades. It is argued that more students admitted by reduced offers would not be able to attain the same grades and can thus undermine the academic credibility of an institution. In Warwick’s Access and Participation Plan for 2020-25, data on contextual offer students show that there is little need to worry. In 2017, 378 students enrolled at Warwick with a contextual offer, with only 233 students relying on this offer. Furthermore, first-year attainment marks for contextual offer students were, on average, 2% lower than non-contextual offer students, with this depending on individual entry grades and departments.

There is also the question of if these offers are discriminatory or unfair to other students who worked hard to meet the required grades .

Conversely, these contextual offers can be argued as being one way to rectify the educational inequality and societal barriers faced by underrepresented students. From my own experience as a student from a deprived town, council housing, recipient of free school meals, a household income less than £8,000, the first in my family to leave school with more than one pass at GCSE and to go to university, my A-Level grades hold a lot more weight than the letters on the page suggest. Students who meet or exceed the required grades or for a contextual offer show an equal academic capability to students having financial stability and a privileged education for the past 18 years.

These contextual offers can be argued as being one way to rectify the educational inequality and societal barriers faced by underrepresented students.

Warwick also reaches out to schools, colleges and sixth forms across the country with a variety of events for pre-16 and post-16 students such as A-Level Bootcamps and school visits to campus. In 2018, they also generated a partnership with Into University, which includes collaboration with six local primary and secondary schools, which gives students academic support and also promotes higher education to students.

There is also the Warwick Scholars programme, which takes a lifecycle approach when working with students. It supports students over five years, from their interest in Warwick in Year 12, their UCAS application, enrolment, during their studies, and after graduation. The programme offers tuition fee reductions, bursaries, support with studying abroad, careers and skills development, work experience and internships.

Once students are enrolled, what support is there for when they start their studies? Financial help is massively important. An additional bursary directly from the university is necessary and does help students to make ends meet. Just over 90% of Warwick students in 2017 said that the bursary had helped them to concentrate on their studies without worrying about finances. It also allowed students to participate in university life, such as having equal access to social and sporting activities.

Over 90% of Warwick students in 2017 said that the bursary had helped them to concentrate on their studies without worrying about finances .

However, what everyone does not always see is how disadvantaged students may be using their income at university to fill financial gaps at home. For instance, since I’ve been at University, my mum’s child benefit for me ended. After finding out my mum was using foodbanks to make ends meet, I made sure to buy books and resources that my brother needs for school so that my mum does not have that extra financial stress. Without a means-tested bursary, students like myself would not be able to afford any sudden family-related concerns or challenges.

What everyone does not always see is how disadvantaged students may be usig their income at university to fill financial gaps at home.

Other streams of support are also available. In terms of wellbeing, all universities offer a range of services to help all students affected by situational factors or barriers. For low-income students, in particular, there is the Widening Participation Network at Warwick, giving students from similar backgrounds a chance to meet and discuss their situations with other students.

Yet, imposter syndrome is a more specific issue dealt with by socio-economically disadvantaged or ethnic minority students. Socially, it is sometimes difficult to integrate and form friendships when you do not have the same social capital and experiences as more affluent or middle-class students such as holidays, gap years, hobbies, and interests. Sarah Staniforth, a Warwick sociology student who graduated last summer, talked about her experience as a working-class mature student. She explained, “I was constantly aware that I was from a different world to most Warwick students, and class is such a taboo subject and it was incredibly difficult to discuss my experiences, which only compounded my isolation.” She went on to add that, “Warwick’s generous bursary for students from low-income families is great. But more needs to be done to ensure that students from non-traditional backgrounds are not socially excluded.”

Socially, it is sometimes difficult to integrate and form friendships when you do not have the same social capital and experiences as more affluent or middle-class students.

Imposter syndrome is not only a feeling of being judged or different from everyone else. People can feel unwelcome and not a part of the university from what other students and staff say and do. In The Independent, Tom Rasmussen wrote about his experience at Cambridge as a northern, working-class boy. He explained, “I only ever felt tokenistic like my presence was at worst an administrative effort, and at best a box to be ticked.” A Director of Studies also questioned him if “Cambridge was really the right place for someone like me,” after he’d got a 2:1 in a mock exam.

The existence of ‘chav’ socials at universities is another example of how middle-class students pre-judge, and point and laugh at the working class, half-knowing they are protected by people like ‘them’ never making it to university. Only in January 2018, members of the Leeds University women’s hockey club were invited to “dress lower class” for a night out. How can students feel welcome when this is seen as okay by their course mates?

Representation in SUs for students from these groups would be a way of showing that the university firmly welcomes and represents low-income students. Other universities such as the University of York have had a Working Class and Social Mobility Officer since 2017. These roles are important for representing a group that may struggle socially, culturally, and financially at university. The fact that these student realities are also intersectional with different genders and ethnicities coming from similar socio-economic backgrounds further shows the need for university-level representation.

Warwick also has a variety of systems in place for the development and future employability of under-represented students. First, there is a bursary for up to 10 days of unpaid work experience, whereby students are entitled to £60 a day to cover expenses. Moreover, there is also the Warwick Advance programme, which offers work experience and internships to students from certain socio-economic backgrounds.

Since we have looked at what universities can do, and normatively what they should do, what about the ‘why’? For me it is a question of are they doing us a favour or are we doing them a favour? Of course, universities benefit from appearing more diverse, with increased participation being seen as a moral imperative. Yet, students successfully applying to Warwick have proven themselves as being as academically capable than any other student. So then, universities stand to massively gain from having students with different experiences and perceptions to create new paths of research. If universities are the pinnacle of education and knowledge creation, this must be led by students with different ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds, as without there being a difference, how can we learn?

Of course, universities benefit from appearing more diverse, with increased participation being seen as a moral imperative. Yet, students successfully applying to Warwick have proven themselves as being as academically capable than any other student.

By ensuring the increased participation and representation of low-income students, universities allow more young people to legitimate their own stories. Through education, underrepresented students can go onto educate others, dispel ignorance, and facilitate change that ensures that the next generation does not face the same barriers to higher education that our generation has.

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