Researchers have questioned whether university armed service units are the preserve of the “elite” after finding that enrolled students are more than three times as likely to have attended a private school as the sector average.
There were 6,370 students in the University Officer Training Corps, University Air Squadrons and University Royal Naval Units in 2013-14, representing just 0.28 per cent of the student population that year.
Academics from Newcastle University who have written a book titled The Value of the University Armed Service Units questioned 1,798 enrolled students and found that one in three had attended a private school, compared with the sector-wide average of 10.3 per cent.
Only 32 per cent of respondents were women, even though they make up 56 per cent of the UK student population.
The disparities are concerning because nine out of 10 participating students felt that their involvement would help them to get a graduate-level job. Respondents felt that membership of the units helped them to improve their communication and leadership skills more than their degree programme did.
The over-representation of private school students may be explained, in part, by the locations of the units’ bases and the university associations they have, many of which are very long-standing.
Fifty-three per cent of respondents attended a university in the Russell Group, which represents older, highly selective institutions. This compares with 14 per cent who attended University Alliance institutions, and 2 per cent who went to GuildHE member institutions.
According to authors Rachel Woodward, Neil Jenkings and Alison Williams, levels of service unit provision have remained “broadly static” over the past two decades while UK higher education as a whole has expanded significantly.
“We would raise the question as to whether university service unit participation is an elite activity and, if it is, whether that is acceptable to universities, the armed forces, and the student body,” the authors say in the book.
The study found that 90 per cent of surveyed students had had a positive experience in the units.
A small minority complained about excessive drinking and the “social attitudes of students from different educational institutions within a unit”. A few mentioned “casual sexism within units, evident through derogatory comments towards women”.