Don’t be deceived: university access is about the money

Working-class school-leavers’ fear of debts larger than their parents’ annual incomes is still a big issue, say Geoffrey Alderman and Zoe Morrison 

February 21, 2022
Students marching in London against the proposed scapping of Education Maintenance Allowance to illustrate Don’t be deceived: university access is   about the money
Source: Getty (Edited)

Every reality show competitor says they want to change their life. University offers that opportunity, too, but while television stardom has its own costs, higher education’s ladder of opportunity comes with a high financial price.

And yet that is apparently of incidental concern. A great deal of research has been undertaken in recent years focused on the lack of working-class white students in English higher education, yet the focus is typically on the university experience itself. Apparently, it’s not about the money.

As two people who entered academia from financially challenged English working-class backgrounds, we beg to differ.

There were no student fees when we attended university, in the 1960s and the 1980s respectively, and maintenance grants were still available. The grant was supposed to be topped up by parental contributions and that was not realistic for us, so we had to combine our studies with paid work. Still, at least we graduated debt-free.

It is true that in the 1980s, less than 5 per cent of the UK population went to university. Others went to polytechnics, but they were then perceived to offer lesser educational attainment. Now, polytechnics have become universities and 50 per cent of the population “go” to university. That is wonderful – but the ongoing under-representation of students from working-class families is hardly surprising.

Despite our success at university, our preoccupation with financial insecurity endured long beyond graduation. And such insecurity is multiplied for today’s students given the conversion of maintenance grants into loans. On top of loans for fees, this imposes a high graduate debt burden.

Who is paying determines ideas about affordability. While middle-class parents may see the cost of university as a bargain – which it probably is compared with boarding school fees – current students can graduate with a debt greater than a year’s household income for some families. And even if debt repayment is income contingent, university looks anything but a bargain to such families.

The lack of maintenance grant is pivotal. Working-class students are unlikely to be able to move away from home to study, more likely to be working full time while studying full time and may well discover large gaps in their state-funded, Covid-affected schooling that require them to study even harder than full time to catch up. The quality of the student experience, then, is all about the money, too.

But that doesn’t mean that working-class students’ motivation for studying is always all about the money. Many working-class students are already succeeding in the jobs they maintain to pay their way through higher education. By their final year, many have been promoted to supervisory posts in large companies because of their high levels of motivation and professionalism. They don’t need a “graduate job” because they’ve already worked their way up that ladder. They want further success – personal growth as well as professional advancement – through education, and they are working hard to pay for it.

There is also a great deal to say about what else, besides professional success, a working-class student might gain from a university education. For us, going to university changed everything – not because we got better-paid “graduate jobs” but rather because of the knowledge we gained. And not just the knowledge from our courses but also social knowledge, and the self-confidence it brings. We learned that it’s OK to be angry about inequality and that you must be prepared to make your case for social change.

The policy focus in recent years has been on encouraging students to “get in” to university – and innovations such as postcode-based contextual recruitment have undoubtedly helped widen undergraduate participation. But boasting about access – as universities often do – is not enough. Boasting about graduate employability is not enough, either. We need to understand and mitigate the underlying inequalities in student experiences while people are at university. Who is looking at retention of those contextually admitted students? After all, working-class students are entering a new social world that is about learning more than just the curriculum.

In short, we need to do much more to understand what success looks like for students from working-class backgrounds – and to help them achieve it without having to pin their hopes on being a reality-TV competitor. But progress needs to start with a recognition that if money isn’t the only factor in university access and success, it is certainly a much bigger factor than is commonly acknowledged.

Geoffrey Alderman is principal of Nelson College London. Zoe Morrison is academic strategic lead in the Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Nelson College London? You need to sort out your web page guys, the English is all over the place. Doesn't give a good impression.