Class and University Attendance

April 8, 2008

An article in yesterday’s Guardian here reveals that 78% of students from the wealthiest homes want to go to university, while only 55% of students from the poorest homes feel the same way.

In Comment is Free, Lynsey Hanley discusses this statistic in light of her own experience coming from an impoverished background.

Now obviously, some people just don’t want to go to university, and that’s fine – more than fine, in fact.  As a society, we need to have a lot more respect for manual labour; I mean, I can’t fix a car.  Furthermore, we really shouldn’t mistake “well-educated” for “went to university” – some of the most intelligent and well-read people I know accomplished this with a library card and an open mind.

However, there’s clearly an issue of internalised classism here – people from more impoverished backgrounds simply believing that university is “not for them”.  These internalised low expectations are a key way in which classism works in a modern “meritocratic” society.  Growing up, my family went through periods where money was a bit tight (my parents ran their own business during the worst economic slowdown since The Great Depression).  As a student, I once spent three days living on mayonnaise sandwiches because I’d run out of money before payday.  While I have a decent job at the moment, my partner gets paid a pittance for a few days university teaching, meaning that we are, essentially, a single-income family.

However, my expectations have always been very middle-class.  Not only did I want to go to university, I never doubted that I would.  No matter how bleak things have gotten financially, I’ve always had this conviction that, eventually, everything would be OK.   In short, I have a wicked case of middle-class entitlement.

How do we give everyone that sense of entitlement?  How do we make sure that a university education (or any other dream for that matter) seems within reach for anyone with the requisite potential? 

Getting rid of tuition fees would be a good start.  More than that, though, a cultural change is required – and to be honest, I don’t even know how to begin.



2 Responses to “Class and University Attendance”

  1. Falco Says:

    Love them or loathe them, the vast majority of people I know from impoverished backgrounds who went on to university, (including one who got a double first at cambridge and another who became a Don at Oxford), went to Grammar Schools. They are also rather older as that opportunity has largely been lost thanks to successive governments, (both Labour and Tory), destroying them.

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