University Education and Class

Zoe Walsh assesses the inequality in higher education in terms of social class, and why this must be addressed in order to ensure representative politics.

I’ve found in my time in person at university that higher education is far less representative and socioeconomically diverse than I ever expected. At open days, my university was made out to be an accepting place, a place where people as in love with politics as I am could come together, and study it, no matter their background. When EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) is discussed, it primarily takes form in conversations around gender, ethnicity, and sexuality . For some reason, class was missing from the conversations;l nobody was talking about how to make the university more accessible to working class students. I asked someone why, and was told it is all because class isn’t a protected characteristic in the Equality Act. 

The impact of this, as already outlined, is that in conversations about EDI, conversations about how to make the university more accessible to marginalised genders, to BAME students and to LGBTQ+ people were the entire topic of conversation.While I do not wish to take away from any of those causes, and indeed agree with all of them, we cannot talk about accessibility of a university education and completely ignore class. When I attended university open days with my father, a man who’s spent his entire career around trucks, and who worked as a bin man throughout my childhood, he quite clearly showed his reluctance, and who could blame him? When attending these open days, in my experience at least, they appear to assume parents have a degree too, and understand what modules are, what credits are, and how UCAS works, amongst all the other things thrown at anxious 18-year-olds and their parents when looking at universities. I was actually interviewed to be a Student Ambassador at my university , and when asked what qualified me, I stated my ability to explain student finance over and over to my relatives - and I got the job! 

31.4% of all students on Politics programmes at my university attended independent schools. 7% of students nationally are educated at independent schools. Naturally also, when studying politics degrees, these students go on to get jobs in workplaces such as the civil service, local government, and Parliament. People who study Politics degrees end up walking the halls of power. In 2019 the Sutton Trust compiled a report called “Elitist Britain”, which found 29% of MPs in Spring 2019 were privately educated, with the Cabinet at the time being 39% privately educated. This link is shown starkly when considering how on average, the Sutton Trust report found, 44% of politicians at that time attended independent schools, and 31% attended Oxbridge.

This shows the need for real change in universities' pursuit of diversity, and the impact this can have on our country. When a student gets a politics degree, and gets a job in the halls of power, they are part of the running of the country, so logically, we need those people to be representative of us all. Actions speak louder than words, and universities being able to talk at open days about how passionate about diversity they are, and when you arrive on your first day, realising how different it is from what you expected. 

I’m the daughter of a bin man and a nurse, and I’m studying Politics at a Russell Group University, but there isn’t enough people like me at universities like mine, and when we look at the backgrounds of our top politicians, we can see the difference it makes, to have a well educated working class people who can speak truth to power and engage in our politics to get policies that help the majority of people. 

Zoe Walsh is a Politics student at a Russell Group university. She tweets at @ZoeWalsh__.


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