Don't make this club exclusive

March 12, 2004

How can we best support students to ensure class doesn't become a barrier, asks Fiona Devine

When I went to university in 1980, there were no tuition fees to pay and I had a full maintenance grant from my local education authority. I was financially independent, which was just as well because money was tight at home. My father was a postman and my mother stayed at home, although she looked after students from foreign-language schools. I was the eldest of four and there was a year between each sibling. My parents were still bearing the high costs of bringing up a young family as I entered higher education.

Government statistics brought to my attention that the value of maintenance grants fell by 8 per cent while I was studying. They continued to fall and, by the end of the 1990s, maintenance grants were available only in exceptional circumstances. Loans became the norm for meeting everyday expenses. In the late 1990s, new students were expected to pay tuition fees upfront depending on family income. Financial support for students in higher education, therefore, changed considerably over a 20-year period.

In a recent study of social mobility in Britain and the US, I interviewed doctors and teachers from working-class and middle-class backgrounds. In Britain, the interviewees from modest homes recounted remarkably similar life histories to my own as they went into higher education from the late 1950s onwards. Working-class kids took up these chances as much as middle-class children even though the differential rate between the classes never declined. Without financial support from the state, those opportunities would have been missed and, arguably, class inequalities would have increased in this era.

These same trends were evident from the second world war onwards in the US.

Higher education expanded and children from different class, race and ethnic origins went to colleges and universities across the public-private divide. Unequal access to these institutions never changed either, however.

My US interviewees described different forms of institutional support from the British. Tuition fees had to be paid upfront, which influenced the choice of institution, whether they lived away from home, whether they worked and studied, and whether they interrupted their studies. Still, they enjoyed some federal support and they were successful in securing a variety of scholarships from universities and elsewhere.

It is not possible to say that the British system of financial support was superior to American arrangements for those from modest backgrounds seeking educational advancement (although I think it was for more affluent families). Various scholarships facilitated access to higher education in the US. Financial assistance made a difference, although high parental aspirations were significant too. Constrained by the Depression of the 1930s and 1940s, the interviewees' parents in both Britain and the US desperately wanted their children to enjoy opportunities that they had never had themselves.

What do these research findings tell us about the impact on social mobility of further changes in government support for students in Britain?

The reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants for students from low-income families from 2006-07 is good news in terms of covering living expenses. The abolition of upfront fees is significant too, as are the arrangements to pay them back according to income post-graduation. The situation will be better for students than it is now.

What should be encouraged is the expansion of US-style scholarships. These initiatives will ensure that class inequalities do not increase and efforts are directed towards reducing differential rates of participation in higher education by class and race.

Fiona Devine is professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. Her book Class Practices: How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs will be published by Cambridge University Press in April. She is a member of the Economic and Social Research Council and chair of its international advisory committee. She writes in a personal capacity.

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