Equality both about getting in – and on – at university

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Higher education in the UK is riddled with inequalities, says Ben Whittaker, National Union of Students (NUS) director of student voice and influence. For many students, opportunities slam shut every step of the way. Improving equality is not only about students getting in – but also on – at university.

Whittaker was presenting a student view as a member of a panel on “Higher education and equality” at the Centre for Global Higher Education’s 2018 Annual Conference, held on 11 April at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Panellists talked about not doing enough about inequalities in access, and that this is part of a wider social problem, he said. “That’s true. I would argue though that universities are in some ways gatekeepers to driving down inequality – they are in danger of reproducing inequality in society.”

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Closed doors

Indeed, access to universities has not improved for some of the poorest in society, argued Whittaker, whose first higher education experience was at the University of West London. Further, there is the question of access to what?

“Let’s look at London. We’re sitting in one of the elite universities, ‘the best’, and then we’ve got the rest, around the M25 where the black students go, the poor students go, the mature students go, most of the people with care responsibilities go.”

It is known why this has happened, but what does it mean in reality for students?

It means, said the NUS leader, that law students who turn up at a modern university are unaware that the big law firm in Canary Wharf that operates a graduate scheme would not consider offering them a chance to become a top lawyer.

“It is a real shame for the student who is spending a lot of money with the hope and dream of making a better life for the family, to know that the doors are already closed.”

Whittaker pointed to some of the obvious inequalities in UK higher education. “If you go to the best university you will be surrounded by the best research, you will talk more about research and as a result you are more likely to become a researcher.”

At the best universities, there is access to courses most students cannot dream of. Before they even enter university, because of school grades, students are told that there are things they cannot study: “We are endangering our own structures and reproducing privilege.”

Institutional inequalities extend to student unions: those at top universities can receive millions of pounds of funding for activities and societies and clubs, “to enrich the lives of students who got two As and probably already have enriching cultural capital from their school life”. Down the road, the impoverished student union at a modern university must deploy “do-it-yourself craftism, which doesn’t have the same impact on your CV”.

‘Fetishising’ access

Access to university, said Whittaker, has been hyped. He gave the case of a poor young black American whose acceptance into Harvard became a national media event. While the student deserved kudos, the case was about breaking through barriers of privilege – but did not come close to reflecting the reality of most young people. “What about the rest?”

“We fetishise access,” said Whittaker. “I am sick to death of going around London filled with billboards that showcase the ‘best’, while the rest of students are blocked out of this access.”

Many students do not see themselves in university billboards and brochures, in terms of identify, and must decide whether to change to fit the picture or stay themselves and limit their life chances.

The NUS leadership is prioritising the issue of poverty and has looked at class and poverty and the impact on access to, and the journey through, higher education. “What we know is that cultural capital and economic capital are linked,” says Whittaker.

“When poor students run out of money, they have to stop engaging with university life. They don’t get the benefits of wonderful higher education because they’ve run out of money. Maybe we should do something about that.”

The NUS President Shakira Martin, he continued, “always says it is not just about getting in, it is about getting on. Student poverty is a real issue. Accommodation costs in this city are high. So on day one we know that students do not have enough money to do anything other than pay their rent – and in most cases that is not even enough.” NUS is pushing for a review of student maintenance, which is a real problem.

The NUS is also prioritising the “black attainment gap, which is criminal”. Enough has been done in thinking and collecting evidence about the problem. “It is time to act,” Whittaker said. When students walk through the doors of an institution, they do not know about the attainment gap. “If they did, would they go? We have a responsibility to deal with that issue.”

At the same time, universities could do things to make life better for students in terms of inequality, for instance in teaching and learning, and creating nurturing environments for individual students. Universities could look at systems of assessment, which can set students up to fail and drop out.

Universities, said Whittaker, seemed often to forget to “go and talk to the masses about their experiences”. Institutions often use the “breakthrough person” – men and women who have broken through adversity – but in reality, life, through a student’s eyes, is not that.

The perspective of students is based on people they live or engage with, and these people are generally not represented in universities – in management or course structures.

Whittaker urged universities “to go out and engage with these people in a non-patronising way. Work out that it is not just about the people who break through – it is also about the people we exclude. By giving people a voice, we could truly revolutionise higher education.”

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