The age of inequality

March 20, 1998

I WELCOME Maria Eagle's article (THES, March 13), which calls for the university system to present a more welcoming face to students from working-class backgrounds.

I made many of the same points in my inaugural address as Association of University Teachers president (1996-97) and I hope that her plea falls on less stony ground than mine. However, her sensible suggestions for change will not work until the vital issue is addressed. Why is social class not seen as an "equal opportunites" issue?

In its terms of references and its submission to Dearing, the Commission on University Career Opportunity, which is endorsed by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, urges that equality of opportunity should be placed at the core of higher education. However, unless one construes working-class origins as a "disability" or unless one regards the problem as solely confined to the student intake, one finds precious little specific concern with class issues.

As A. H. Halsey has shown, the bias towards the public schools is as pronounced among university staff as among students. Peter Scott's research suggests that university governance shows comparable bias. No wonder working-class students see universities as an alien environment.

What is the solution?

First, CUCO must collect data on inequality of opportunity deriving from class background and devise an action plan to combat it.

Second, the government must rethink those policies that inhibit entry to higher education for students from less affluent backgrounds. The funding crisis will not be solved by soaking the students. A greater contribution from business (via learning bonds) is required.

Inequality of opportunity harms not only the victims but, by its divisive wastage of talent, harms society. The mechanisms to address the unmentionable (class) aspects of inequality of opportunity are in place. We have to recognise the problem for what it is and use those mechanisms appropriately.

P. K. Burgess

Department of psychology Dundee University

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