Fair access to university is the path to equality

Hayden Banks 27 April 2016

I n the latest revelations over Higher Education, we were informed that the age-old belief that studying at university provides a route for social mobility is indeed a fallacy. I must be one among many students across the country that feels completely disheartened upon opening a newspaper to find spurring accusations that the £9,000 we pay might not really make any difference to our life chances. In a job market that has never been so competitive, it seems logical that progressing to university and gaining a good degree will improve our chances of success. Not any more.

I don’t think that many of the criticisms launched at university tuition in the last few years come as a shock to most of us. A generation ago, university was a path for the academically elite with a small number of high-class research institutions training the brightest students for well-paid jobs such as Medicine or Law.

The rest would attend polytechnics with weaker job prospects or gain vocational training and carve out a successful, albeit less lucrative, career. But this convenient, segregating, and damaging educational setup was turned upside down in 1992 when polytechnics were granted university status and everyone was on an even keel. Or so they thought. Thus ensued the spurring accusations that we are not all equal, and someone paying £9,000 to study Law at Oxbridge is, shockingly, getting more for their money than someone studying Furniture at London Metropolitan.

But the most recent findings throw all of this into question, by suggesting that it doesn’t matter if you attend the best-ranked university in the country or the lowest ranked, your socio-economic background will continue to influence your future. The study found that graduates from the top 20% of wealthy families were typically earning 30% more than the remaining 80% of the graduate population upon leaving, even if they were at the same university studying the same course. The lesson: progress in Britain is predicated on family background, more so than ever before.

I would attribute this to a number of things. Firstly, if you are from a wealthy background, it often comes hand in hand with a wealth of contacts and networks that students can utilise when finding a job. Regional disparity is also rife, meaning that someone living in London will naturally be exposed to better career opportunities than someone like myself, tucked away in a rural corner of North Wales. Whilst hard work has got me to where I am, one cannot escape their background, and the sad truth persists that meritocracy is all but a dream in Britain today.

To change, it will be a slow and arduous process, but the only choice we have is to pursue the ‘work hard’ mentality that is drilled into the mind-sets of those from poorer backgrounds from an early age. Inspire everyone with good teaching and fair and equal access to the country’s best universities and slowly, but surely, the tides will turn.