Trainee medics are top of 'posh' league

April 30, 2004

Students from the middle classes still dominate higher education. Alison Goddard looks at how some subjects are working to break down social barriers.

Students from the top social groups dominate higher education to such an extent that they account for more than half the students on full-time courses in 13 out of 19 subject areas.

The upper classes are also more likely to be accepted for a university place than their peers from lower social classes in certain subjects, according to an exclusive analysis by The Times Higher .

Medicine is the poshest subject, with almost three-quarters of its students coming from the higher social classes. At the other end of the scale, mathematics and computer science take less than half their students from those groups - but they have a large proportion of students from unknown and unclassified social classes studying these subjects.

Only education takes less than half its students from the three highest social classes while having less than 20 per cent from unidentified social groups.

The analysis provides the first detailed breakdown of admissions according to class backgrounds for the major academic disciplines. It is based on students who applied for full-time university places through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in 2003. The students were classified by Ucas as belonging to one of seven social classes (see below).

The Times Higher grouped these students into three upper and four lower social classes and examined the subjects for which they applied and their chances of being accepted. A third group, covering those of unknown and unclassified social class, was also identified.

In the general population, the top three social classes together account for 36 per cent of people, and the lower four social classes together account for 35 per cent of people. The remaining 29 per cent are unclassified.

The corresponding figures for entrance to higher education through Ucas are 55 per cent, 25 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.

Medicine and dentistry have the highest proportion of students from the upper social classes. Some 74 per cent come from the top three groups and 14 per cent from the lower four groups. Some 13 per cent are from unidentified social classes.

While medicine and dentistry have relatively low acceptance rates, middle-class students remain more likely to be successful. Some 61 per cent gained a place compared with 56 per cent of working-class applicants.

A British Medical Association spokesman blamed financial as well as social barriers for deterring students from the lower socioeconomic groups. He said: "We have long been aware that medicine is dominated by the uppermost social classes.

"Medical students study for two or three years longer than other students and have fewer opportunities to work part time. They also have to shell out for lab coats, stethoscopes and books.

"There are also social barriers - some medical schools expect potential students to have undergone medical-related work experience and that's much easier toget if your parents are medics."

The physical sciences are also relatively posh. Some 63 per cent of students come from the higher social classes and 24 per cent come from the lower social groups. Some 14 per cent are unknown or unclassified.

More students appear to have accepted places on physical science courses than applied. Ucas classifies applicants according to the subject listed most frequently on the application form. Acceptances are classified according to the course that applicants end up on. This can create the impression that more people accepted a place than applied for one.

A spokesman for the Institute of Physics said that studying for a physics degree was expensive. The course was often four years long rather than the normal three, adding an extra financial burden.

He said: "The institute this year announced a bursary scheme for undergraduates that aims to give students from the poorest families an extra £1,000 a year to study physics. The bursary scheme hopes to break down the financial barrier for the poorest students.

"Physics is a difficult subject to teach - imaginative, specialist teachers are required and so schools with the greatest resources tend to produce students more likely to go on to study physics at university. The institute is helping to support physics teaching and is trying to promote positive role models to school pupils, demonstrating that physicists come from a huge variety of backgrounds.

Mathematical and computer science are the most egalitarian subjects. Some 46 per cent come from the upper three groups, and per cent from unidentified social classes.

John Whiteman, professor of maths at Brunel University and vice-president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, said: "Certain people have mathematical ability and it's innate. I can't see any reason why there should be any difference by social class. Having worked as a mathematician in various parts of the world, it is my view that there is no social bias in mathematics."

Admissions by social class
 

Subject group

Upper
social classes

Lower
social classes

Unidentified
social class

Medicine and dentistry

74%

14%

13%

Modern languages, literature and related

68%

20%

11%

History and philosophical studies

67%

20%

14%

Linguistics, classics and related

64%

21%

15%

Physical sciences

63%

24%

14%

Combined subjects

59%

24%

17%

Law

58%

24%

19%

Biological sciences

57%

26%

17%

Social studies

57%

23%

20%

Architecture, building and planning

54%

25%

20%

Mass communications and documentation

53%

26%

21%

Subjects allied to medicine

52%

%

22%

Engineering and technologies

51%

26%

22%

Veterinary science, agriculture and related

50%

30%

20%

Education

49%

31%

19%

Business and administrative studies

49%

%

24%

No preferred subject group

49%

24%

%

Creative arts and design

47%

28%

25%

Mathematical and computer sciences

46%

%

%

 

Acceptance rates

Subject group

Upper
social classes

Lower
social classes

Unidentified
social class

Combined subjects

155%

167%

198%

Modern languages, literature and related

109%

106%

122%

Engineering and technologies

107%

106%

151%

Architecture, building and planning

104%

106%

151%

Physical sciences

102%

105%

137%

Social studies

94%

91%

112%

Mass communications and documentation

94%

94%

135%

Mathematical and computer sciences

93%

87%

112%

History and philosophical studies

92%

92%

117%

Linguistics, classics and related

90%

94%

118%

Business and administrative studies

87%

85%

118%

Law

86%

86%

104%

Biological sciences

85%

84%

108%

Veterinary science, agriculture and related

85%

90%

125%

Subjects allied to medicine

77%

67%

79%

Education

76%

72%

91%

Creative arts and design

76%

74%

88%

Medicine and dentistry

61%

56%

43%

No preferred subject group

11%

10%

6%

The new classifications of social class introduced in 2001 are based on the way people work. The scale discriminates between employers, the self-employed and employees, who are further divided by the nature of their job conditions. These include career prospects, the length of notice required, whether employees are paid a salary or wage and whether they are offered a company pension and health insurance.

  • Class one (8.5 per cent of the population) refers to large employers and higher managerial and professional occupations, such as university and college lecturers, doctors, teachers, librarians, social workers and the clergy
  • Class two (19 per cent) covers the lower managerial and professional occupations, including writers, artists, laboratory technicians and health professionals other than doctors
  • Class three (9.4 per cent) refers to intermediate occupations, such as medical and legal secretaries, dental nurses and routine laboratory testers
  • Class four (7 per cent) comprises small employers and own account workers, including hotel and restaurant managers
  • Class five (7.2 per cent) covers lower supervisory and technical occupations, such as traffic wardens, plumbers and motor mechanics
  • Class six (12 per cent) refers to semi-routine occupations, including sales assistants, chefs, hairdressers and taxi drivers
  • Class seven (9.1 per cent) covers routine occupations such as waiters, packers, porters and couriers

Those who have never worked, the long-term unemployed, full-time students and people not classifiable for other reasons (29 per cent) are not covered by the system.

alison.goddard@thes.co.uk

 

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments