The University of York offers £1,000, a guaranteed interview to become a Student Ambassador, and tailored careers support to its students through the Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards. To qualify for selection for the award, you must be a resident of the UK, be on an eligible degree course, and either be from an ethnic minority background, have lived in local authority care at some point, or have a disability.
A lot of the new students who don’t meet one of the latter three criteria seem to react with a degree of indignation: “I don’t deserve a free grand any less because I’m white!” and so on. Now, obviously the University isn’t trying to imply otherwise, but I actually think that the immediate reaction is at the very least understandable. After all, there are plenty of white, able-bodied students who have never lived in care but for whom £1,000 towards their living costs would be a huge and incredibly appreciated help.
However, we are all made aware in the news and by politicians that people who do meet one of those three criteria are less likely to be affluent. Therefore, they are more likely to be what the University might judge as a “good” candidate for the help.
I believe that the primary motive behind the award, though, is actually getting a higher number of disabled, minority and less affluent students to university.
In fact, this is a theme which is consistently at the forefront of political debate. And when York stated its intent to raise tuition fees to £9,000 in most cases, and over £6,000 a year across the board, it had to draw up an Access Agreement with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), detailing how it justified the fees. In the agreement the University states that it proposes to spend over 30 per cent of its income from the additional fees to raise aspiration to attend university in potential students and “support their achievement, promote access to the University, and support successful completion among [their] target groups”.
This includes a whopping £5,058,000 of bursaries and fee waivers in the 2012/13 academic year. For example, first year students from a household with an income below £25,000 are offered £2000 in fee waivers and £1000 in accommodation bursaries.
My issue with this system is not that I don’t believe disadvantaged people should have an equal opportunity to study at university, but rather that this “positive discrimination” is just combatting the symptoms of a lack of equality of opportunity; not fighting the root problem. There should be no need to offer the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Awards, because it should be just as easy for those who are currently eligible for the award to attend university as it is for those who aren’t.
This is, of course, much harder to achieve than meeting set quotas for disadvantaged students by fixing admissions in their favour, which is what universities such as Leeds, Bristol, and Birmingham have done: they have systems which “boost” the grades of poorer students, meaning middle class applicants can lose out on a place to someone with a lower grade.
In my opinion, we need a system which ensures all students have an equal – and high – standard of primary and secondary education so that college and university places can fairly be awarded based solely on academic success. Because let’s not forget that a degree is not supposed to be easy to obtain; it should show that someone has dedication to and talent for their subject – it shouldn’t be something that anyone can get.
We just need to make sure that the people who can are the people that have worked hard to achieve, rather than those who were lucky enough to have an above-average school in their area, or those who gain a place specifically because they didn’t.