Impact Features writer Lucy questions whether the government’s equality strategy is having any real effect…

Widening participation is an initiative led by the UK government aimed at increasing the number of students from under-represented groups participating in higher education. It aims to do this by engaging these students in activities that raise aspirations, encourage applications to higher education institutions and ensure that these students are able to complete the course and be successful once they leave. These under-represented groups include students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, disabled students, students of ethnic minorities, students in authority care and students with little or no family history of higher education. The activities range from subject taster days to higher education awareness visits to residential summer schools.

Students from these low-participation backgrounds are under-represented in higher education because they are at a serious disadvantage. There is a plethora of factors that lead to this disadvantage, which is why it is such a difficult issue to tackle. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are far less likely to have access to academically useful resources taken for granted in middle class homes (such as books, the Internet and parents who can help with homework) and as many homes are overcrowded, students find themselves with no suitable place for home study. Students who have been in authority care may have had nobody encouraging them to raise their aspirations and, like students from immigrant and refugee families, may have had their education disrupted due to moving around.

“As a previous University of Nottingham summer school participant and summer school ambassador, I know that these summer schools are informative, enjoyable and encouraging”

A popular widening participation activity is the residential summer school, where year 12 students apply to spend a few days at a university learning about their chosen course and university life. As a previous University of Nottingham summer school participant and summer school ambassador, I know that these summer schools are informative, enjoyable and encouraging. What can be questioned about them, however, is whether they are targeting the right students. From what I have seen, most of the students on these residential activities are keen, confident and driven and would most likely gain a place at a top university with or without the summer school experience despite their modest backgrounds. The exception to this may be the most competitive courses such as Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, where having hands on and relevant experience is vital to securing a place. In this situation, summer schools are often a great way of giving students experience who are unable to get it elsewhere due to location and economic factors. For the most part, however, intervention is required much earlier in a pupil’s academic career in order to make a difference. This is why intervention in both primary and secondary schools in low-participation neighbourhoods is vital to informing students of the option of higher education early on.  On this front, the University of Nottingham is again active and successful, frequently running workshops and campus tours for younger pupils from the local area.

Yet why is it important to have equality and diversity in education? Education is a human right. A human right which UNESCO stresses is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Whilst I won’t go into the argument that on the basis that education is a human right, it should be free, it does mean that it should be accessible to everyone. For the individual, the choice to participate in higher education is vital in promoting social mobility. Therefore, it is vital for our society to understand this and fight for an education system where a girl who moved to a deprived area of Blackpool from the Caribbean when she was three and whose parents are both unemployed has just as good a chance of getting into medical school as a middle class white boy who attended Eton; assuming a career in medicine is what she wants, or would want if it ever occurred to her that it was possible. For society as a whole, diversity in higher education is vital in promoting a more equal society in which background does not dictate one’s chances of success.

According to Universities UK, it has been predicted that 80% of new jobs to be created by 2017 will be in occupations with high proportions of graduates. In order for the UK’s workforce to adapt as the economy changes, as knowledge intensive jobs replace lower skilled and mid-level jobs, the UK’s competitiveness in the global market will increasingly rely on unlocking talent from all sections of society.  By increasing the proportion of people with the flexible skills that a degree can provide, the UK will be in a position to reduce the numbers of capable people who face unemployment in the future, which is positive for both society and the economy.

“Whilst this progress shouldn’t be under-appreciated, educational inequality is still a major issue to be tackled in the UK”

Universities UK have reported that the proportion of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds attending university increased by 30% between 2004-05 and 2009-10 and praise the funding allocated by the government and the universities themselves for this achievement. It is also claimed that universities have supported this more diverse student body as high completion rates have been maintained across the board.

Whilst this progress shouldn’t be under-appreciated, educational inequality is still a major issue to be tackled in the UK. The most privileged 20% of 18 year olds are still three times more likely to go to university than the least advantaged 20%. Although academic achievement at 18 is the strongest factor of the likelihood of getting a place at university, this academic achievement is strongly correlated with socio-economic background.

“The pace must be picked up if the goal of equal opportunities in education across all sectors of society is to be reached in our lifetime”

More must be done to tackle this issue. The pace must be picked up if the goal of equal opportunities in education across all sectors of society is to be reached in our lifetime. This can be done by involving employers and the professions in raising aspirations and providing experience for young people in deprived areas, securing long term, as opposed to year-on-year funding from the government; but most importantly, continuing with a coordinated and sustained joint effort from universities, charities and the government directed at both young people and those already in employment.

Lucy Hannah O’Driscoll

Image: blinking idiot via Flickr

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