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