University Elitism – a deepening problem

Recent revelations in the Palatinate showing Durham to to be the second worst performing university in terms of numbers of state educated undergraduates are deeply worrying.
As a leading higher education institution Durham is tasked with providing the nation with its future business leaders, academics, politicians and civil servants. Reports that only 60.5 % of Durham undergraduates attended state-funded schools highlights that Durham is producing a workforce that is not representative of the society it serves and calls into question whether the university is doing its job properly.
For a society to function properly and fairly it is important for those from all walks of life to have access to the highest academic standards but it is clear that this is not the case. With 56% of state school pupils and 60% of private school pupils going onto university at a glance it may seem the disparity between the two sectors is not significant.
However when the types of institutions pupils from the two sectors are attending is revealed the figures highlight a worrying trend. Private school pupils are twice as likely to attend Russell group universities and 5 times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
This disparity has damaging affects on social mobility in the UK and ensures that power and influence is safeguarded for a small economic elite. This inequality most notably manifests itself within the professions. With 71% of senior judges, 50% of Lords, 43% of newspaper columnists and 33% of MPs having attended private schools, almost all areas of public life are dominated by the 7% of Britons who have attended fee paying institutions. When the top public positions in a society are taken by a privileged elite it is impossible to ensure that that society is run for the benefit of all members and not just for those in its upper echelons.
Of course the cause of this issue is multi-faceted but institutions such as Durham have deep rooted problems that need to be addressed to reduce this disparity. Durham’s image problem clearly plays a role in continuing this inequality. The university has been more famed for its toffish, public school reputation in recent years as opposed to its academic excellence. This acts to put off high achievers from the state sector and attracts a certain type from private schools who wish to continue to live in a public school bubble.
In addition to this, accommodation fees of £7000 + means many simply cannot afford to study in Durham without significant support from their parents or part time work. If the powers that be at the university are serious about improving the numbers of working class students, which I am not certain they are, it is vital the high cost of maintenance at Durham is addressed. However this problem is not Durham’s alone and for real change to occur there needs to be a concerted effort from both schools and universities.
Universities should expand their ‘contextual offer’ programme to ensure more working class pupils gain places. While many are uncomfortable with the idea of positive discrimination it is a policy that makes sense for universities. According to research state school pupils with similar grades to pupils from private institutions are more likely to achieve 2:1’s or firsts at degree level. Therefore ensuring that state school pupils achieve places at our top universities will improve academic standards at these institutions.
In addition schools need to provide more guidance and encouragement for high achieving pupils. According to the Sutton Trust, 4 in 10 teachers ‘rarely or never’ advise academically-gifted children to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. The suggestion here is if high achieving state pupils receive better informed guidance from teachers they are more likely to apply to the top institutions.
While in recent years great progress has been made in making sure Britain’s top universities are more representative of the society they serve, it seems Durham is still stuck in the past. For real progress to be made elite universities such as Durham, along with the government and school heads, need to make a concerted effort to improve the ratio of state-educated students, however I fear the desire is not there from those who run the university.

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