Mind the Gap: Addressing the Class Dimension in Higher Education

7038952701_bb67cdb2d7_oThe debate in Higher Education (HE) in the UK is slowly starting to recognise that inequality in education is both the cause and consequence of societal elitism. As a result, there is an increasing debate about widening access to academia, and more and more newspaper articles are devoting attention to the few who made it through the Oxbridge close-circle system. 

On the 17th of May 2019 the Reteaching Economics and IIPPE Teaching Political Economy working group organised a workshop on economic pluralism, teaching and research. I was chairing the panel on “Challenges and Opportunities for the Economics Curriculum Around Decolonisation, Gender and Diversity” which included brilliant contributions from Dr Meera Sabaratnam (SOAS), Dr Lucia Pradella (King’s College), Dr Ingrid Kvangraven (University of York) and Ali Al-Jamri (Rethinking Economics, Diversity Campaign Manager). They addressed various political, historical and cultural  issues around neocolonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and gender segregation in HE at large and in the economic discipline in particular. Considering the potential great complementarity of the topics, I thought it was relevant to bring in the class dimension in the discussion. I noticed that while the marginalization of women and people of color is rightly getting increasing attention, the class dimension is sometimes forgotten. Indeed, although class remains a crucial lens to untangle injustice and exclusion in the HE industry, it isn’t dealt with with as much urgency. Maybe also because it’s a bit less visible. Indeed, last week I was discussing this issue with another ‘academic migrant’ from Southern Europe, and he suggested: “Panels should ask “what do your parents do/did for a living?” during job interviews.

To prepare my presentation, I approached a couple of ‘data intelligence’ offices in UK universities asking for facts about the class dimension of access to higher education in the UK. I was pointed to the Office for Students, which is a new resource that enables us educators, but also students, to look at various key bits of data on the university sector as a whole, and on individual universities. A very useful resource indeed! 

So here is what I found, and the results are pretty discouraging. 

There is a general concern about students’ retention across UK HE institutions. According to data presented below based on UCAS’ end of cycle report 2017 and Crawford 2014, findings seem to support such concern, across disciplines. Figure 1 below shows the years in the degree on the Y axis and three indicators on the on the X axis: 

  1. Course completion: where 1 corresponds to full completion of a non-medical degree, and 0 if students did not complete their courses in the period; 
  2. Dropout: where 1 is if they went to university but dropped out of HE completely within two years of initial entry, and 0 is if they went to university but did not drop out;
  3. First or 2:1: where 1 corresponds to going to university full-time to study for a non-medical first degree, successfully completing their degree within five years of entry and graduation with a first or a 2:1 as their degree class, and 0 if they went to university full-time to study for a non-medical degree and successfully completed it within five years of entry but did not graduate with a first or a 2:1 as their degree class

Figure 1: Distribution of the likelihood of dropping out within 2 years, completing a degree within 5 years and graduating with a first or 2:1, by university course

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 21.27.14.pngSource: Crawford 2014

When looking at the determinants of such outcomes, the trends seem quite unanimous. From a recently published dataset from ONS it is reported that “Young students from disadvantaged areas are more likely to drop out, less likely to gain a first or 2:1, complete their degree within 5 years or find graduate employment compared to their more advantaged peers”, which confirms what is summarised in figure 2 below.

Figure 2: % of HE participants dropping out within 2 years, completing a degree within 5 years and graduating with a first or 2:1, by socio-economic backgroundScreenshot 2019-07-09 at 21.30.27.pngPercentile of SES distribution (1=least deprived, 100=most deprived). Source:  Crawford 2014

The most advantaged students tend to dominate the proportion of 18 years old in England with a place of HE. Students with lower socioeconomic status – from disadvantaged classes – are more likely to leave university within 2 years, complete their degree within 5 years and less likely to graduate with a First or 2:1. The report notes that while “less than 10% of the least deprived state school students drop out of university within two years, over 80% complete their degree within five years and nearly 70% graduating with a first or a 2:1, more than 20% of the most deprived state school students drop-out, less than 60% complete their degree and less than 40% graduate with a first or a 2:1” (p. 16). In the below figures 3-4, the same kind of stratification is observed when looking at a mix of indicators that describe the degree of ‘privilege’ or ‘advantage’ of students in universities. These are spatial disaggregation and multiple equality measure (which include sex, ethnic group, where people live, secondary education school sector (state or private), and income background (as measured by whether a person was in receipt of free school meals (FSM), a means-tested benefit while at school). 

Figure 3: Proportion of 18 year olds in England with a place in higher education, by educational disadvantage in their local area Screenshot 2019-07-07 at 21.56.44Source: UCAS 2017, End of Cycle Report

Figure 4: Proportion of 18 year olds in England with a place in higher education, by UCAS multiple equality measureScreenshot 2019-07-07 at 21.57.50Source: UCAS 2017, End of Cycle Report

Based on the above evidence we now have an idea of what the main determinants of retention and success in higher education are. The intersection of gender and race with class and economic privilege is still important for understanding the inequality in achievements of the student body. Yet, university managers and policy makers seem unable to identify and implement counter policies to combat the polarizing outcomes. As a result, we are not going in the right direction: marketization and fees increase, scholarships are scant, the de-finincing of the welfare state and austerity persists, and the ‘class’ gap is not narrowing (figure 5).

Figure 5: Proportion of full-time, first-degree UK domiciled entrants to HEFCE-funded higher education institutions in England who leave during or after their first year
Screenshot 2019-07-07 at 22.00.22
Source: Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), based on POLAR3 measure of educational disadvantage

This discussion raises a further point, which is about how the elitist turn of higher education perpetuates its internal institutional dynamics. The close association between class and student academic performance should make us reflect on who is and who is not going to become an academic and what the consequences of that are. If disadvantaged students are unlikely to finish their degree or obtain high marks, they will not manage to enrol in a PhD program. Thus, who will ultimately become a professor? In the end, will the academic body be able to reflect and inspire a wide range of voices to find answers to questions and challenges society needs to address?  

Inequality of opportunities, enabled by unequal power relations in society, is reinforcing the lack of diversity in academia, including in terms of class. That will hamper socio-economic and political participation, and ultimately socio-economic mobility at all levels, inside and outside academia. We are at a crossroads between the opportunity of transforming education into an open, nurturing and inspiring space, and the danger of failing as a society to do so. Academics have a responsibility to advocate towards the right direction. 

Lorena Lombardozzi is a Lecturer in Economics at The Open University in the UK. Photo by Newman University.


2 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: Addressing the Class Dimension in Higher Education

  1. Instead of looking at socio economic factors as the cause of the gap, look at the amount of support that students get from their family and friends. The perpetuation of the image of universities as “elitist” contributes to a lack of support. Prospective students either see a university degree as unattainable because of the cost or are afraid to be seen as “elitist” by their friends and peers. Even when this is not the case, every child needs a push at some stage in their life unless they belong to those rare individuals that like studying. In cultures where higher education isn’t seen as something that only “geeks” aspire to, the socio economic factor plays a much smaller role. In countries like China, children are pushed to achieve the highest grades possible from the day they can hold a pencil. Parents will sacrifice themselves for years so that junior can go to college. Of course it creates huge pressure on children and the question is if a university degree is really worth all that much.


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