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How academia favours the rich

When I was little, I was part of a theatre group. For one of our performances, we sang Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. I remember we had our school ties on our heads as we chanted “We don’t need no education!” While I don’t think this song dismisses the value of childhood education, it does however critique the education system and addresses issues surrounding invisibility and a system that has been built to suppress people.  

Forty years on, the sentiment of this song continues to remain. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the existing pitfalls within our education system. During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, schools had closed for almost an entire year for more than 168 million children worldwide. Currently, in Europe, a substantial number of children live in homes with no suitable place to do work (5%), no access to internet (5%) and no access to books at the appropriate reading levels (5%). Shockingly, in the USA, 2.5% of students in public schools do not live in a stable residence. While Article 2 of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children are not discriminated against because of their circumstances, there is growing evidence out there that tells a different story.

Going in and out of lockdown, with continued self-isolation periods, has led to hours of important education being lost. Our dependency on virtual learning has meant many pupils have been at a disadvantage due to their lower socioeconomic status (SES). It is likely these events have exacerbated the gap in education between those from disadvantaged groups and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Diversity within scientific research is an issue that needs attention not just within recruited patient populations, but also within the workforce. Engaging people into the scientific field, whether it be to participate in a study or to lead the study itself, begins with education. STEM subjects, in general, often appear unattainable to some groups of people because they do not see a reflection of themselves in that community, or they are impeded socially and financially by their background.

As someone from a lower socioeconomic background, I know first-hand what it is like to work twice as hard to reach the same levels as my wealthier counterparts. I should note here that I have my own privileges that have enabled me to progress in the field. But even so, to this day, my career options within academia have been largely influenced by my socioeconomic background.

In this blog post, I delve into these disparities within education, particularly in higher-education, and the ways in which the education system needs to be improved to ensure that careers in academia are accessible to all. Although the focus here is on the UK education system, many of the themes will be familiar to people across other countries.

A problem

The schooling experience is not the same for everyone. The fact that there are schools that have paid tuition is a perfect example. In today’s society, children living in poverty are more likely to have lower educational outcomes. In fact, in 2019, just 456 of the 143,000 (0.3%) pupils classed as disadvantaged by the Department of Education achieved top grade 9s in English and Maths GCSEs, compared with 6,132 out of 398,000 (1.5%) other pupils.

This gap continues into higher education, with a plethora of literature addressing the range of reasons why more disadvantaged groups are underrepresented in higher education (particularly elite universities). Last year, the progression rate gap between non-Free School Meal and Free School Meal pupils increased to 18.8%. While the reasons for this problem are endless, below I discuss some challenges that I have personally experienced (I encourage other people to share their stories too).

A mindset

Motivation and fear of failure

A combination of family financial resources, neighbourhood environment, life experiences, social networks and other aspects of daily life ultimately shape how we navigate through life and understand our place in the world.

Money – although often a taboo subject – becomes a focus for families living in poverty. It becomes the be all and end all of keeping a roof over your head and food on the table. The ultimate goal ends up being to ‘get out’. Traditionally, one route to achieving this it to go to university.

For many, being the first generation within the family to go to university brings with it a lot of pressure. Studies have shown that first-generation college students are more likely to be afraid of failure. As a result, they are more likely to adopt more damaging forms of motivation.

In my case, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get good grades to get a good job, earn good money and no longer have the quality of my life dependent on money. Being 18 and already thinking about being 40 is not the ideal scenario. Many individuals on my course didn’t even like the subject, but just wanted the university experience. Having family financial support meant that, for some, they did not feel as much pressure to achieve good grades. I, on the other hand, felt that failure was not an option.

Imposter syndrome

The concept of identity is one of the toughest challenges facing low-SES students when entering the cultural context of higher education. Low-SES students become the minority in higher education and their underrepresentation amongst the community often reminds them of their differences from others. Consequently, many students have reported feeling like they do not belong in this context and are often prone to experience ‘imposter syndrome’.

In addition, individuals from low-SES backgrounds often suffer from negative stereotypes regarding their competence, which has implications for students’ psychological functioning. This leads many to question their own intelligence and the fear of conforming to the stereotype increases their emotional load.

An unfavourable environment

The selection process

The selection process to get onto higher education courses is one of the biggest barriers facing low-SES students. Universities are driven to select individuals who are, or appear to be, the most able and motivated. Recent statistics between 2014-2019 showed that the proportion of acceptances of students with grammar and private school backgrounds into the University of Cambridge was higher than the corresponding proportion of applications.

When I came to apply for universities, I completely ruled out Oxford and Cambridge (Figure 1), despite having good grades, out of fears that I would not fit in and not get in because of my state school education. Not only this, but schools with less funding are also more likely to have limited resources to help their children excel and achieve the needed grades to get in. Most importantly, the attitudes of these schools are often to make sure kids at least pass, rather than supporting children to reach for these more renowned institutions.

Figure 1: The University of Cambridge (left) and University of Oxford (right), known collectively as Oxbridge, are the UK’s oldest universities and are among the top universities in the world. (Ara Mambreyan)

The financial impact

One of the biggest barriers of higher education is the finance. The rise in tuition fees in England – first introduced at £1000 in 1998 and rising to £9,250 a year – has definitely been a turn off for many individuals. Accumulating such a huge amount of debt at such a young age has discouraged many applicants. Nonetheless, many see a degree as the best option in a competitive world to get a good job.

While I was able to secure a student loan, like many, I still ended up having to work at the weekends to help with fees and living. This was extremely necessary as I decided to attend a London-based university where the price of a drink is eyewatering. For myself, I felt I missed out on many social events due to my part-time job, and I often felt the pressure of ensuring I paid rent and fees on time. Nonetheless, I still had the loan to help me.

Yet, it was not until I went to do my master’s degree that I noticed the true socioeconomic divide. More and more people are going to university and attaining undergraduate degrees. This has created a crowded market with many people deciding to undertake postgraduate degrees to signal their higher ability to potential employers.

Unfortunately, in the UK, the maximum loan for a one-year masters is around £11,000. This amount gets you nowhere close to covering the fees for many courses. For example, not a single postgraduate course at LSE would be covered by the maximum loan. My postgraduate degree cost around £13,000, despite most of it being digital.

Contrary to the dominant discourse I want to emphasise that it’s a lack of MONEY that is physically preventing people from reaching higher education. I spent months looking for bursaries and schemes to ensure that I could afford the course. I finally had an interview with people from the Grundy Educational Trust who kindly gave me a bursary to fund some of the course. Without their support, I would not be writing this today: fact.

But my story doesn’t end here. During the process of accepting my place, I was informed that I would have to pay a deposit to secure my place, otherwise I would lose it. Unfortunately, I was still finishing my undergraduate degree and had no such money to pay it. I explained this to the admissions team who offered me an extension of a few weeks. No few weeks would have helped me miraculously get £1000! Therefore, I was subjected to having to ask family friends to borrow the money.

Once paid, I was then informed that they wanted the course money upfront. So, they wanted £13,000 before I even started the course. I remember – so clearly – crying because I just thought, through no fault of my own, that I was being punished. I had the potential, but not the financial support.

Why was my background and ability to pay the thing that was preventing me from excelling?

I then had back and forth emails with admissions having to explain my financial situation and I was allowed to pay the course in instalments. Nice right? Well no. On top of paying in instalments, I had to pay interest. So, I ended up paying more than all the people who were able to pay upfront. Even then, the dates I had to pay these instalments each semester were a few days before my student finance loan came in. So again, I had to email and explain my financial situation and ask for an extension. I did that for a whole year.

Now, I want to emphasise that I am not here to insult my university. I very much enjoyed my time there – made some good friends and enjoyed the course leaders and lecturers. I feel that when I was at school, I never really noticed my socioeconomic status, but as soon as I stepped foot into these elite universities, I knew that my life was not the same compared to other students. During the whole process, it felt to me like no one had ever been accepted onto my course who had been in a similar financial situation to myself. People’s different circumstances are clearly not considered in the application and admissions process.

The cultural norms

For many, the student experience is one of the biggest selling points for university. This experience varies greatly depending on who the student is, where they have come from, where they study and what degree they take. For many, university is a culture shock, which is dependent on the contrast between their past and present experiences. Students who have graduate family members, who have been exposed to university outreach or who have attended schools oriented towards university will be more familiar with the student lifestyle.

I became most aware of this when I first started doing laboratory experiments on my course. My school was poorly funded and had poor science equipment; therefore, I was used to plastic pipettes (Figure 2) and a variety of experiments using potatoes. Whereas, when I went to university, I realised that most people had a lot of experience with high-quality equipment and had in fact done a lot of our uni experiments back in school. This made me embarrassed to partake in experiments, in most cases picking modules where this wasn’t a requirement. This in turn made me hate the lab. To this day, I still hate it!

Figure 2: Adjustable micropipette (1) vs. A disposable plastic pipette (2). (Bento)

Another aspect of this, as I mentioned previously, is being able to see yourself within the community. At university, from a cultural perspective, I felt I didn’t really fit in. Most people were from very affluent families, had participated in lots of sport and had different interests. At my school, every week we played bench ball (it was actually fun)!

I can also recall countless times where people commented on my ‘London’ accent. Where I am from, everyone speaks the same, so it wasn’t until I went to university that I noticed that it was ‘unusual’. I think this subsequently contributed to my hate of presentations and public speaking.

For many, social class is just one barrier. If people do not see themselves represented within these contexts and within these fields, then they are less likely to think it is accessible. I think this is one of the major contributors to why there is lack of ethnic diversity at universities. Whilst I myself have not experienced institutional racism, I fully recognise the negative impact this has on further education for individuals from ethnic minorities. If you would like to read further on this topic, there are some recommended articles at the bottom of this blog.

A family business

Once you get an undergraduate and perhaps a postgraduate degree – the struggle does not stop there. Coming out of university is chaotic – you don’t know what to do! Career options at school and university are poorly taught and without knowing people in the field itself, it is difficult to know what route to take.

For example, young people from higher-SES are more likely to interact with adults whose paths are associated with high educational attainment. Many people from higher-SES have connections within various fields that can enable them to get their foot in the door.

Another aspect of this, which still impacts me today, is experience. Advantaged individuals often have the financial backing to engage in other activities, such as unpaid internships, and have the social network to do so. At university, I spent my weekends working to help fund my course. But when I came out of university and was applying for jobs – everything required relevant work experience. Where do employers expect people who are working to top up fees and living costs to fit that in?

This leaves many low-SES students, despite getting higher education, again at an unfair disadvantage going into the world of employment. Ultimately, those students who are less successful on the market will also be less able to repay their loans. Thankfully, most of us are waiting for it to be written off after the 30 years!

A solution

The disparities within the education system, and the quality and delivery of education itself, are complex. No one solution will solve them.

Undeniably, the most necessary step forward is to increase funding. Money should not be a barrier to education. Disadvantaged schools should be provided with funding for better resources, better engagement programmes and better opportunities for their students. If we don’t scrap tuition fees altogether, then there needs to be more grants and bursaries for people from lower-SES backgrounds, not just during undergraduate education but for postgraduate courses too.

Institutions and organisations need to be more prepared and aware of different people’s backgrounds, and strategies need to be put in place to accommodate those people. The national curriculum needs to be improved to ensure that every student is taught about their career options and how they can reach their goals. All children, regardless of their background, should be encouraged to reach their full potential (and should not be boxed into presumptuous ability groups).

A child does not choose to be born into poverty. Therefore, if a child chooses to work hard and dedicate their life to academia, they should not be disadvantaged, or even punished, for something that is out of their control.

I’m sure there’ll be people reading this article who will say that ‘this is simply just the way of the world’. But why should we accept that?

Imagine the amount of creative, intelligent minds the STEM community is losing each year simply due to money. Think about all the young minds now who have the potential to cure disease and save lives, who without the funding may not achieve this. We are wasting talent, restricting progress and limiting success. We need to work together to make a change, and this starts as soon as young children walk through the classroom door.

Resources

References

  • Jury M, Smeding A, Stephens NM, Nelson JE, Aelenei C, Darnon C. The experience of low-SES students in higher education: Psychological barriers to success and interventions to reduce social-class inequality. Journal of Social Issues. 2017 Mar 1;73(1):23-41.
  • Budd R. Disadvantaged by degrees? How widening participation students are not only hindered in accessing HE, but also during–and after–university. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education. 2017 Jul 3;21(2-3):111-6.
  • Destin M, Hanselman P, Buontempo J, Tipton E, Yeager DS. Do student mindsets differ by socioeconomic status and explain disparities in academic achievement in the United States?. AERA open. 2019 Jun;5(3):2332858419857706.

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Academia / Diversity / Education / Equity