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What in the world could possibly deter working class kids from going to university?

December 2, 2010

News that the ConDems have just scrapped Aimhigher is exactly the sort of thing that you’d expect to drive me to my keyboard to bang out an angry diatribe about the yawning class divide in our education system. Aimhigher after all is/was the university access scheme aimed at attracting pupils from poorer backgrounds to higher education. But I’m strangely sanguine about its passing, suspecting for a while that Aimhigher existed only to dignify a poor record in broadening participation in HE, a record that wasn’t helped by the introduction of fees.

Figures suggest that the uptake of university places by working class students remains disappointing. Indeed the perceived need for schemes like Aimhigher is a testament to this fact. But if the point needs emphasising, a report from the Sutton Trust into social mobility and education, states that ‘while low-income students are unambiguously more likely to participate in higher education than in prior decades, the gap between low-income students and high income students is persistent’. In other words, the extension of higher education has principally benefited the middle class.

So how do we account for the apparent disinterest of low income families in going to university? In The British Journal of Sociology (January 2010) John H. Goldthrope argues that parents and their children make a rational decision about how to proceed in education based on a general balance of costs and benefits. While middle class families regard higher education as a ‘defensive expenditure’ necessary for the maintenance of intergenerational class advantage, working class families are more guarded about the possibilities presented by higher education.

In their case, other, less ambitious – and less costly – educational options would be adequate to the goal of maintaining class stability, while also providing quite good chances of some eventual degree of upward movement. For working-class families, for example, the ‘best buys’ for their children, despite places in higher education  becoming more widely available, could still appear to be vocational courses, linked perhaps to subsequent on the job training, which would reduce the chances of relegation into the ranks of the unskilled or unemployed while increasing those of relatively quick entry into skilled manual or technical or supervisory positions.

If Goldthorpe is right then government proposals to increase fees will further deter working class parents and school leavers from applying to universities. Even if graduates pay nothing back until they are earning £21,000 per year, it is hard to see how the benefits will offset what are essentially greater and longer term costs. In any case, research suggests that the benefits of a university education for working class students may be scant enough. They suffer higher drop-out rates than their better-off peers; may achieve lower grades than middle class students in poccession of the necessary cultural capital to succeed in higher education; and are short of the sort of social capital that would allow them to break into the top professions after graduation. Little wonder then that students from the poorest backgrounds see university as a poor investment.

If we’re serious about getting kids from low-income families into university (and I’m not sure that ‘we’ are) the most effective way is to tackle social and economic inequality. It seems that gross and growing inequality deters ambition, and as the gap between rich and poor is now greater than at any time since the Second World War, that’s quite a deterent.

But tackling inequality means redistributing wealth and you won’t find that being discussed around the Cabinet table anytime soon. Instead we have the empty rhetoric about social mobility, which the government says is best achieved by students making a personal investment in their education to gain competitive advantage in the job market. This is naked, aggressive individualism presented as if it has a social conscience.

The truth is that in a world of aggressive individualism, crime probably looks like a quicker and more effective means of climbing the social ladder if you’re on the bottom rung. It brings its own risks but crime does have one very clear advantage when compared with higher education. It promises considerable financial rewards without the trappings of banal, middle class respectability.

Now, I know you’ll say that’s just me being flippant, but remind me, how many kids from low income families are in prison, and how do those figures compare with those in higher education?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex permalink
    December 3, 2010 3:15 pm

    “Even if graduates pay nothing back until they are earning £21,000 per year, it is hard to see how the benefits will offset what are essentially greater and longer term costs.”

    The changes dramatically reduce the risk of going to university. If a working-class student goes to uni in the current system, then gets a job at £21000/year, they are liable for £540 in repayments every year. Under the new system, they are liable for nothing.

    So the risk of going to uni, not earning much but still being liable for hefty amounts every year disappears (for incomes up to £29000/year, you pay less overall and per year under the new system). A rational risk-averse working-class student should find uni much more attractive once the changes come in.

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    December 3, 2010 5:08 pm

    Welcome Alex,
    Given that students from low-income families weren’t exactly besieging higher education in the days when fees were paid and grants given, what makes you think such students will enrol now that they will be charged £9000 a year?

    If drop out rates are higher among working class students, grades lower and job expectations limited, why would working class students see university as a successful career route in the first place?

  3. eilidh m permalink
    December 5, 2010 11:54 am

    Interesting post. I think the question of ‘respectability’ as a class-specific phenomenon is one which has perhaps been underestimated in comments on participation in HE. I can confidently say from my own experience that what constitutes respectability for my rural, working-class family is pretty different from the ideas of the middle-class students I’ve studied alongside and taught over the past few years (I’m about to complete a PhD in an arts subject at a Russell group university). I can’t escape the feeling around my folks that they regard my having spent upwards of ten years in post-compulsory education as a waste, and possibly even a bit shameful. In contrast, my younger brother went straight from school into an industry-sponsored HNC, and now earns more than double my (graduate) partner. While his career path might have alarmed the parents of my classmates and students, it’s looked upon with a great deal of respect in the family and community we come from, and it’s given him both kudos and security in a relatively short space of time. As you suggest, the bigger picture of social expectations and aspirations needs closer attention – it’s not just financial implications putting people from non-traditional backgrounds off HE.
    Apologies for the anecdotal ramble – and I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a representative example of working-class students – just thought it might be interesting to give you an example of the context-specific rationalization you describe in action. Should probably get back to that fecking thesis now.

  4. Rabelais permalink*
    December 5, 2010 4:12 pm

    Hello eilidh,
    And thank you for your comments. No need to apologise for the ‘anecdotal rambling’. In many respects my own interest in this springs from biography. I was a mature student from a working class family but before I meet my partner I’d never given a thought to going to university. People like me just didn’t go to university. No-one in my family had been; my school never mentioned it as an option (I failed my 11 plus – I’m in Belfast) and the one friend I had who did go was held in awe. Higher education was so remote from my own social experience. In fact, when I look back on it, even once I’d graduated with (if I say so myself) a good degree I hadn’t a clue what to do with it. I just couldn’t imagine what sort of careers would be open to me, and eventually I drifted into postgraduate research largely under the direction of one of my tutors.

    For these reasons a lot of the research in this area makes sense to me. The social, cultural and psychological distance that working class kids travel when any of them do go to university seems to be poorly understood by political leaders. I can’t see how fees, no matter how apparently ‘progressive’ in their repayment, are going to help that situation.

    Speaking personally, if I were in my mid-twenties again and wondering what to do with my life I doubt that I’d look twice at higher education. The notion of such spectacular debt, even if repayment was deferred, would scare me to death.

    Good luck with the thesis. And I hope you look in and comment again.

  5. October 25, 2011 11:29 am

    I wonder what about those who are working class but come from an ‘underclass’ background? I am currently an international student from Toronto, Canada and I’ve been working class my whole life, but both my parents are from South America, and they were outright poor back there. To put it in perspective, I am in one of the really high-up universities in London, my mom had to drop out of high school after she was 14 to work, and mind you she was in Toronto at that point.
    Being a mixed background mature student Latina, living in residence, it’s obvious how YOUNG my fellow students are. I admit to feelings of ‘otherness’ when I realise that if they screw up, their parents can bail them out, if I screw up, I REALLY screw up, and I am too old and far away to throw it away. Though, I find it gives me more fuel to study and achieve, not less. So perhaps looking at people who come from the working class or the ‘underclass’, we might see those who are hungry for more.

  6. Rab permalink*
    October 26, 2011 8:39 am

    Welcome Melissa,
    That’s a very good point. One of the things that drove me at university was the feeling that I had a real opportunity presented to me but also that if I failed, I was drinking in the ‘last chance saloon’. I saw it in other mature, working class students. There were quite a few of them in my year. There seem to be less now.

    My understanding of the research is that are high drop-out rates among young, working class students, who lack the cultural and social capital (not to mention money) to take advantage of a university education. But I actually think being a mature, working class student has advantages. It’s not without hardship, but mature students from poorer backgrounds students bring with a greater life experience and the sort of dedication that you refer to, Melissa. Speaking as a tutor, I find that mature students (of whatever background) are a real asset to a course. They can have a very positive influence on younger students. That’s why I think a sensible education policy wouldn’t try to railroad 18 year olds into university, when giving them a few years to mature might benefit everyone.

    Thanks for your comment Melissa. I hope you drop by again.


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