Degrees of Privilege

Degrees of Privilege

Meenakshi Parmar asks whether a degree is in fact a privilege or contributing to an increasing sense of wealth disparity.

Income inequality in the UK is alive and blossoming, with the top 10% of society owning approximately half of the country’s private wealth, according to the Office for National Statistics. It is a widely held perspective that education is a principal route out of poverty. With so many jobs now requiring a degree-level qualification, university is becoming increasingly important for employment. It creates the opportunity for social mobility, particularly for disadvantaged students. Despite government policy building a dangerous obstacle course of high (and rising) tuition fees, abolished maintenance grants and the curse of student debt, more students than ever are now attending universities across the country. Surely this should be seen as a breakthrough; record numbers of students from all economic backgrounds are getting the opportunity to broaden their intellectual and social horizons. In reality, however, once the relative safety net of university is removed and students are thrown into the “real world”, a vast inequality of wealth still remains. Students from poorer backgrounds are failing not only to find professional jobs but also to earn a similar salary to that of their wealthier counterparts. So how much does higher education actually affect social class?

The Institute of Fiscal Studies conducted research highlighting that wealthier students have an advantage in future employment purely because of their pre-destined position in society. In 2012-2013 it was found that, amongst the graduate population, the wealthiest 20% earned more than the remaining 80%. Moreover, educational charity upReach found in 2013 that only 58% of graduates from state school backgrounds found a professional job, in comparison to 74% of graduates from independent schools. When arriving at university, especially as a student from a state school, it soon becomes clear that universities are not at all reflective of society in terms of their social demographics. Attending university is unfortunately  a privilege nowadays that mostly only people from better-off backgrounds can afford, similarly to how private schooling is an option only for those who have the means to pay fees.

In questioning how the hard work of many students is being disregarded, with university qualifications being overlooked by employers in favour of backgrounds, it is important to examine how universities are supporting those without certain advantages that wealthier students may have.

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These advantages could include having professional parents with white collar jobs, providing elite contacts, and organising top-rate work experience for their children during and after their studies at university. Indeed, the founder of upReach, Henry Morris, has stated the reasons for why this is happening to be a lack of ‘soft skills’, such as networks, opportunities and role models, that certain students simply do not have access to. These factors are evidently not related to academic attainment, so it seems unfair that this ‘world’ of privilege is out of reach for poorer students who deserve access to higher-class professions just as much as their fellow graduates. Indeed, further studies by upReach demonstrate that it is these students deprived of a better deal in the job market that are actually achieving superior degree qualifications. Amongst the top universities in the UK, more than 20% of state school graduates achieved a first class degree, in comparison to 18% who came from independent schools; a fact which somewhat makes the inequality feel deeper.

The University of Leeds, to its credit, has developed an intricate careers service which includes both an employability strategy and the online service ‘Leeds for Life’, all of which aims to build on the skills and successes of students. However, some may argue that more needs to be done by universities nationally to support poorer students in light of the disadvantage they face in employment, perhaps promoting some form of affirmative action which would help to level the ‘playing field’ between students. But would specialist strategies just stigmatise disadvantaged students and contradict the notion of equality of treatment that universities (as public institutions) commit to? Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that by scrapping maintenance grants and agreeing to make tuition fees relative to inflation rates, universities are merely adding fuel to the inequality. They are becoming market-orientated environments that are increasingly wrapped around the little finger of the government, having to think about money at the expense of poorer students.

The Gryphon has spoken to graduates from around the UK to get their opinions on whether they feel that university has enabled them to achieve the career and lifestyle they aspire to. One English Literature graduate from the University of Sheffield, currently employed by a local retailer, says: “My parents have never had careers; they have no contacts and can’t even give me CV advice. They have been able to give me nothing through university”. They went on to reiterate the notion that universities are continuing to fail students by implementing financial barriers to education: “I got lucky with grants- soon they won’t have that, and I don’t think I would have been able to go to university without them”. Furthermore, a University of Leeds Environmental Science graduate agrees that some students from under-privileged backgrounds have experienced challenges that more privileged students would not necessarily face upon entry to the “real world’’. They comment: “One thing I’ve learnt whilst job-searching is that personal contacts are invaluable- and if your family doesn’t have them, it can be quite a big barrier to overcome”.

Whilst universities are responsible for nurturing students and subsequently releasing them into professional life, something is going seriously askew along the way. However, when examining the wealth gap between wealthier and poorer graduates, it is important to look beyond universities. Instead the focus should perhaps be on systemic problems in society such as the general lack of social mobility that the government has yet to remedy. Nevertheless, universities could be seen as passive bystanders whilst certain young people are unable to fulfil their ambition and progress to succeed in the world of employment. Although some universities do have effective career services and strong equality policies, there needs to be a reshaping of how support is delivered to students. Perhaps a widespread introduction of personal workshops with students, teaching these above-mentioned ‘soft skills’, would help to level the playing field and make economic background less of an issue. After all, in a perfect world, economic background should never prevent somebody from progressing to where they deserve to be. Evidently, our world is far from perfect though.

Meenakshi Parmar

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