STEM, often hailed as the hub for innovation and progress, paradoxically mirrors a bleak socio-economic divide. Since records began, those available to participate in STEM-based practices have been significantly skewed towards the wealthy. Although progress has been made since the mid-20th century, the platform is by no means even. To answer why, we must delve to the very core of our social differentiation: education.
In the United Kingdom, university tuition fees have drastically changed over the last 50 years. From 1962 to 1998, the Education Act granted an exemption of tuition fees for “ordinarily resident”, full-time students at university, along with the introduction of a right to a maintenance grant that provides term-time financial aid. The act remained until 1998, where the Teaching and Higher Education Bill introduced a new structure for determining tuition fees based on students’ household income. Households receiving less than £23,000 a year would be exempt from fees, whilst households earning between £23,000 and £35,000 would be charged a percentage of the fees on a sliding scale. Households earning over £35,000 a year bore the full fees, capped at £1,000 annually. Maintenance grants transitioned into loans, creating the financial landscape we see today. However, the cap on tuition fees has subsequently increased over time to £9,000 since 2012. The standard undergraduate tuition fee for most courses in 2023 is capped at £9,250 a year for UK and Irish students, adjusted for inflation. Although there is government funding provided by the Student Loans Company to aid students to afford university fees, the high fees and cost of living deter many potential students from low-income households from applying to university or pursuing careers in STEM, which requires additional fees for postgraduate courses.
Most English 10–14-year-olds find science interesting, but those from working-class backgrounds rarely see it as a career
A study by the London School of Economics found that only 15% of scientists come from working-class households. Aspirations, a key determinant for a career within STEM, was highlighted and explored in an ongoing study by King’s College London. Intriguingly, it found that most English 10–14-year-olds find science interesting, but those from working-class backgrounds rarely see it as a career. Perhaps because the fees to pursue these jobs act as a massive deterrent to those who grow up in families struggling to reach the basic level of income.
A further deterrent from full scientific inclusivity is the low payout from maintenance loans. These loans are often insufficient to cover a student’s living costs during term time and pushes many students to seek part-time jobs or, in some cases, request financial aid from their family. For students from families without extra funds, they must therefore balance studies with part-time work, leading to more burnout, fatigue and stress than those who can rely on their families to cover the bills.
[A no job policy] strongly favours students who come from wealthier backgrounds to attend the best universities
This situation is exacerbated at the top universities in the UK. At Oxford, the demand for excellence strongly advises students against relying on employment to fund their studies, as they believe the degree should leave little free time. Cambridge University takes this doctrine to the extreme with a ‘no jobs’ policy during term time, expecting students to fully commit to studying. This strongly favours students who come from wealthier backgrounds to attend the best universities, and the only way many can afford to attend is through scholarships, which are extremely competitive and difficult for even the brightest students to achieve, or by working secretly, which will heavily burden the balance of their demanding workload. The danger of imposing such strict rules for students is the failure to represent all backgrounds at the top universities in the UK, which will not only squander talent but increasingly isolate science from the many within our society.