Why I... think universities need to acknowledge class as the final taboo

August 6, 2004

Increasing access to higher education for students from less advantaged backgrounds is a key feature of Government policy since it represents a move towards a more egalitarian society. But the fact that the number of students from social class V has doubled since 1992 is no more than a hollow triumph since the percentage that they represent in the student population remains the same, due to increased participation by all classes.

Moreover, while steps are being taken to increase access to higher education for students from lower social classes, policy-makers are ignoring huge inequalities of outcome among those who have made it to university. According to the Mori Student Living Report 2002, the degree completion rate, final classification and income after graduation for students from working-class backgrounds are significantly lower than those achieved by students from the middle classes. The rationale for incurring student debt is that the lifetime salary gain is sufficient to rapidly recoup the cost. However, those from poorer social classes generally owe 15 per cent more than wealthier students while their earnings after graduation average 7 per cent less. Thus the promises of a significant income benefit from a university education do not apply to the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in society.

Richard Hoggart's 1957 book The Uses of Literacy argued that, although material differences between the classes were diminishing, the working classes understood and used the tools of social change (increased literacy, more leisure time and improved incomes) differently from the middle classes. Similarly, I would argue that, although there is much commonality of cultural experience between classes, provided by such things as reality television, mass culture and consumer goods, this is largely superficial.

University managers and teachers either ignore or are not aware that the daily lives of those living in the poorest areas of our towns and cities still reflect class differences that were recognisable in the 1960s and even the 1930s.

Teenagers who make it to university from disadvantaged backgrounds come from a culture of "townies" and "moshers" (different youth styles that come into conflict), where violence and crime are ever-present threats and the text message and rap lyric are tools of communication. It is true that middle-class teenagers send texts and enjoy urban music, but this is tempered by exposure to other sources of literacy and knowledge. The class divisions in our comprehensive education system are as great as those between the grammar and secondary modern schools of the 1970s. Youngsters from less advantaged schools and homes are often unable to develop the wide foundations of knowledge or gain experience of middle-class mores that would prepare them for life at university.

The result of this class division is that university students from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack middle-class social skills are disciplined for anti-social behaviour. Students who fail to approach the Access to Learning Fund because they do not have the paperwork or find its similarity to the "social" intimidating are criticised for not applying for benefits. Students whose language and research skills are limited by their education and home backgrounds do not approach learning support because to do so would be to admit that you are not coping.

In an environment where your accent and vocabulary are almost a different language, and coming from a background where suspicion of authority is normal, is a middle-class support network really accessible? Universities need to face up to the final taboo. Working-class culture exists and needs to be catered for, and until that challenge is confronted equality of opportunity in higher education will remain a myth peddled by the Government as a sop to its Labour roots.

Carolyn Downs is doing an MPhil in the social history of bingo at Lancaster University

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