Elitism is alive and well in most UK universities

Where you live and where your family comes from still determine your access to a university education, says London Metropolitan University vice-chancellor John Raftery

March 6, 2018
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Recent Ucas statistics revealed the country’s class system is still hard at work and as active as ever in more than half of our universities. 

Figures analysed by Times Higher Education (“Most privileged outnumber least advantaged 2:1 at most UK HEIs”, 25 January) showed that, at 70 universities, students from the most advantaged areas were still twice as likely to gain a place as peers who lived in disadvantaged areas. At 10 universities, the ratio was higher than 9:1.

Despite many years of widening participation efforts by higher education colleagues, it appears that where you live and where your family comes from still determine your access to a university education.

To me, these figures demonstrate an elitism that continues to run through higher education in the UK.

Young people who live in low participation areas seem to be responding obediently to implicit signals that university, and the social mobility that comes with a degree, is simply not for them. They are to “know their place”. They are not encouraged to have dreams and ambitions. And those signals are coming loud and clear from the very universities that are simply not doing enough to promote social mobility.

What lies beneath these Ucas figures is yet another reminder of the vital role that post-92 institutions, such as the one for which I am privileged to be the vice-chancellor, are playing in the UK higher education sector. 

Let’s remind ourselves that it is 62 universities, less than half of our sector, that have what I would describe as a fitting number of students from low participation districts enrolled.

It is through their widening participation efforts that thousands of young people have been given the opportunity of a university education. It’s an opportunity that, very often, was never considered by themselves or their parents or their teachers throughout their childhoods.

This experience is in direct contrast to the “other” young people, those who come from high participation districts where their parents and other family members have studied at higher level and gained degrees and therefore enjoyed a range of careers available only to university graduates.

Those “other” young people have been brought up with the expectation of higher study; they see it as their right.

So thank goodness for the 62 out of 132 UK universities, mine included, that proactively recruit, welcome and support students from disadvantaged areas. 

We are, I believe, the real drivers of social mobility in the country today. It is to us that young people from low participation areas come when they want to transform their lives and the lives of their children, when they recognise that they are not prepared to “settle” for the life and life chances set out to them from birth or from when they or their parents arrived in this country. 

They decide they want more, they are ambitious for a better job, more security, an opportunity to make a contribution within their community, and they are prepared to work hard to achieve that. Put simply, less than half of our universities are willing to give those young people the opportunity that is taken for granted by many students at our more “elite” universities. 

Perhaps the most effective way to demonstrate the value of recruiting and enrolling students from low participation areas is with another set of statistics. I make no apology that these are figures from my own institution. Law students are fairly typical of all London Met students; according to data recently released to us from our participation in the TEF subject pilot, 68 per cent of them come from the highest two categories of areas of multiple deprivation. These students are young people from very low income families. 

What happens to them after they graduate demonstrates why it is vital to have a range of different types of institutions available to our students. Some 97.5 per cent of them are in employment or further study six months after graduation, compared with the sector benchmark of 90.8 per cent. And the skills they learned at London Met lead 83.3 per cent of them into highly skilled employment or further study at the same time point, compared with the sector benchmark of 81.7 per cent.

I would suggest that education secretary Damian Hinds and universities minister Sam Gyimah would do well to bear these statistics in mind as they prepare to review tertiary education in the UK.

London Met is proud to be among the universities that actively transform the lives of their students. 

We believe that students from low participation areas deserve that opportunity. We also believe that the UK deserves a well-educated population.

It is therefore disappointing that more than half of our universities have stalled in their efforts to encourage applications from those for whom higher education is a passport to social mobility and, indeed, a transformed life.

John Raftery is vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University.  

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