A report published by the Office for Fair Access (Offa), an independent public body that regulates the accessibility of higher education in the UK, recently revealed that only 3.2% of working-class youngsters are admitted into leading universities. The offspring of the richest individuals, on the other hand, are 6.8 times more likely to procure places at the most prestigious institutions and advance on to post-graduate study and into professional careers. With devastating cuts to education funding, £9,000 tuition fees and student debt at an all time high, it comes as no surprise that students from low income backgrounds are 2.5 times less likely to progress onto higher education at all in comparison to their privileged counterparts.
The director of Offa, Prof Les Ebdon, stated that “the biggest challenge for highly selective universities is to reduce the participation gap, the challenge for many other universities is to improve outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds”. Top universities are therefore not only failing to enrol students from a wider socio-economic pool but also failing to support, retain and cultivate the potential of working class and BME students who arrive at their doors with high tariff points . Extensive research has demonstrated huge disparities between the attainment levels of students from high and low income backgrounds, with the latter more likely on average to struggle with the financial burden, receive lower grades or drop-out of university.
Black students in particular feel marginalised and “condemned to fail” in the institutional environment. According to the Department for Education and Skills, Black students are statistically far less likely to fulfil their learning potential , graduate with a 2:1 or first class degree and find equal employment opportunities after higher education than their white peers of equal ability. Likewise, although women tend to outperform men at university, they are under-represented in post-graduate study and alongside Black students, have significantly less earning levels after graduating than their white male colleagues.
National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’ Black Rep, Sarah Dagha, said: “There are multiple factors that explain the Office for Fair Access’ findings and that contribute to the BME attainment gap. Tuition fees are unaffordable and degrees are full of hidden university costs. This creates an immediate financial barrier to higher education for students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds who are disproportionately Black and Ethnic minorities. Black students often feel isolated and alienated by Eurocentric curriculums that overlook the vast contributions of Black academics and silence Black perspectives. When the implicit racial bias inherent to non-anonymous marking systems and the institutional and personal racism faced by students on campus are also taken into account, it is unsurprising that Black students don’t perform as well as their white counterparts. As a Black woman studying Politics and Philosophy and hoping to progress to post-graduate study, I was shocked to find out that men dominate 71.2% of my chosen field, that there are zero Black Philosophy professors in the UK and that only 0.4% of the total number of Professors are actually Black. ”
Peter Brant, the head of policy at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, however, sparked outrage earlier this year when he suggested that some of these challenges could be tackled if poorer students learned to emulate middle-class culture before applying to university. This reductionist, Hyacinth Bucket approach to tackling the poverty gap in education was met by harsh criticism from other NCAFC members.
Minesh Parekh, Sheffield Defend Education and NCAFC NC responded with:
“The notion that you should just fake it until you make it into the bourgeoisie would be laughable if it had not come from the supposed expert responsible for advising the current government on policies that have real-life dangerous implications for millions of people in the UK. The results of the latest Offa report on economic barriers to education show the devastating results that the Coalition government’s ideologically driven austerity cuts have had on young people. With Education Maintenance Allowance for FE college students slashed by 60 per cent and tuition fees raised so high, it is no wonder that only 3.2% of students from low income backgrounds have access to top institutions. This is unacceptable. Education should be free and accessible to all”
OFFA’s conclusions add to the mounting evidence that the Coalition government’s elitist and draconian austerity measures are failing UK students and will no doubt galvanise the growing student movement and its demand for free and fair education.