The increased working class struggle to ascend the ladder of higher education


As the government tightens access to student loans, there are concerns working class students may fall behind

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By Meadow Lewis

Decades ago, someone like me would not be able to attend university due to my gender. I am also classed as disabled as a result of mental illness, and thus briefly considered how far society has come regarding accessibility to higher education. Yet, in pondering upon this idea, I realised that I had more reasons to argue that accessibility has decreased rather than increased.

On 24 February 2022, the government launched a consultation on reforms to higher education, with one of the most controversial proposals advising that students who fail to achieve a grade 4(C) in Maths or English at GCSE level will be denied access to a student loan if they choose to apply to university. In ‘The Education Hub’ blog on the government’s website, the DFE’s mitigation for the proposal was that they “want people to pursue the right path for them”. Furthermore, governmental research from this year revealed that 52 per cent of pupils from disadvantaged households achieve a grade 4 in English or Maths in contrast to 71 per cent across England as a whole. The proposals majoritarily impact the working class and their ability to ascend the class ladder.

Beyond government policy, the mere cost of moving to university threatens to place it out of reach for the working class. The costs accumulate at a rapid pace if a family lacks access to a car, which combines with the price of equipping oneself with utensils and other necessary supplies. These are fees which transcend what gets covered through university bursaries. Such factors provide reasoning to the figure that in 2019 more than half of universities in England had less than 5 per cent white working class students in their intakes. Post-Covid further research has not been conducted on this, but one may deduce that this figure has decreased due to mass financial losses from lockdown combined with the current cost of living crisis.

Accompanying the crisis, the changes announced to student loan repayment terms for students enrolling from 2023 onwards mean that pupils will pay a larger sum of the loan for an extended period of time. This risks deterring future cohorts from applying to university because the changes increase universities' perceived inaccessibility to students who survive on a low income. Amidst this discussion occurring in the politics of the present day, some have ignorantly argued that students should simply become employed to lessen the impact of the forces working against their best interests. However, a survey conducted on 1,000 students by Unite Students found that “49% of students actually work part-time. Among those that do work part-time, the majority (64%) work seven hours or more per week, and over half (61%) are concerned about the impact that a part-time job could have on their studies. Almost a third of those who work have to increase the hours they are working in order to stay financially afloat.”

As the survey demonstrated, with increased costs of living comes an increased pressure to earn money. Moreover, with more hours having to be spent earning comes less availability for studying, ultimately resulting in lower assessment results. Whilst the entirety of the student population will be impacted by increased living costs, they equally will not have to work as hard as their working class peers to reverse its impacts. To consider this further one must hark back to the government’s consultation on reforms to higher education, discussed earlier. With students from lower income backgrounds getting lower results due to financial pressure, increasing the results required to access university eliminates it as a possibility for many candidates.

My final point of consideration centres on the support supplied by both universities and the government to working class students. In order to do so Nouse spoke to Student X from the University of Manchester, who receives the maximum student maintenance loan accompanied by an additional bursary from the university. The student explained that she had received very minimal support from Manchester beyond her bursary. Although she has a job and is mindful of her finances, she often finds herself in overdraft. This is a situation she knew she would be likely to find herself in, but views university as a vital means of escaping the cycle of a low income family. Beyond her experience is the experience of working class students at elitist universities such as Oxbridge. Of the students on a special entry scheme to an elite university, 57 per cent gained graduate jobs. This juxtaposes 74 per cent of graduates from the same university from different backgrounds. What worsens such figures is that these materialised despite a higher percentage of these working class students gaining a First or Upper Second class degree than the students categorised within the 74 per cent figure. It thus becomes apparent that universities need to increase the support provided to working class graduates as well as working class students.

In relation to increasing support for working class students, the following are a few brief suggestions. As a Literature student, the minimum reading requirement often averages two books per week (minus critical materials and preliminary reading). Throughout the academic year the cost of such rapidly amasses. Whilst York has an ongoing partnership with Blackwells, providing a discount on books for its students, there still remains an extra cost each term which students must fund. If universities are unable to provide further discounts for the working class student population, increased availability of required texts within university libraries would prove efficient. Furthermore, after recent discussions in The Guardian regarding underpaid university staff, the requirement for food banks within universities has become increasingly apparent. My final point of change extends beyond financial aid. Beyond the receipt of a bursary, students tend to receive no further correspondence from the Universities. By this I mean that staff members rarely contact those on bursary schemes purely to check how they are coping with navigating adulthood and the financial pressure which accompanies it. Such an action, though fairly simple, would be beneficial in creating a sentiment of support and guidance. This action would also undoubtedly be welcomed by students who do not come from working class backgrounds.