Letter: We must reflect society we serve

July 6, 2001

Frank Furedi takes issue with Universities UK for seeking to attract people who have no current aspirations for higher education to university (Soapbox, THES , June 29).

But Furedi manages to avoid the key question. Why do some young people lack that aspiration? If university were attended by people from a wide range of social backgrounds, of a range of ethnicities, then the question might not matter. If it were also a simple rite of passage, again it would not be an issue.

But the expansion of the past few decades means it is now the norm for young people from a high socioeconomic class to go to university and is still very much the exception for those of a manual working-class background to attend. Certain ethnic minority groups are grossly underrepresented. Do we really imagine that there is some simple propensity not to aspire to university among such groups and thus wash our hands of the social inequalities that follow?

It used to be - at the time of Robbins - that far fewer young women aspired to higher education than did young men. Robbins did not dismiss this as some quirk of feminine character, but saw it for what it was: social resistance to the post-compulsory education of women - and a waste of potential.

To resist widening participation to under-represented groups is a perilous path. Social inequalities will widen further if universities entrench themselves as the institutions that accredit the middle classes and entitle them to command high salaries. The distribution is excruciating and embarrassing - the 17 per cent of the population from managerial and professional backgrounds commandeer 60 per cent of university places.

The question we must ask in view of the UUK report is why only 9 per cent of young people from semi-skilled and unskilled manual backgrounds want to go to university. Let me offer five suggestions: n Working-class young people lack information about higher education opportunities. Middle-class parents know how to prepare for and apply to university

* Working-class young people may lack the necessary normal entry qualifications and thus feel they are unable to apply, will not be accepted or will not succeed if they apply. There is an apparent correlation between A-level success and social class

* Working-class students may not feel that higher education has sufficient value to be worth the effort and time. Three years of study is three years loss of earnings and three years less progress in any trade. The potential for later higher earnings with a degree may not be believed in, may be a risk and may be insufficient an incentive

* The financial commitment to study may be seen as too great, too risky or be insufficiently understood. The evidence accumulating since the introduction of fees and the abolition of the grant supports the view that the system is discriminatory on a class basis

* There is the possibility that some students may perceive higher education as a threat to their class identity. Both study and qualifications are likely to lead to different social perceptions and ones that working-class students may feel will undermine their social position and solidarity.

Only the last point might properly be considered to be a real lack of aspiration. But even this is not transparently self-evident: Pierre Bourdieu would argue that it is a clever trick of the ruling classes to ensure that the culture of the higher education that is on offer would ensure that most of the working classes would decline it.

Furedi writes: "Targeting those who have no aspirations for further education degrades university education". Universities ought to try to ensure that they socially represent the society that they serve. This is not social engineering. It is no more than plain social justice.

Alistair Ross
Institute for Policy Studies
University of North London

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