Four years ago, Professor AH Halsey from Nuffield College, Oxford, concluded in a paper for the National Commission on Education that the middle class was getting more than twice the proportion of degree-holders one would expect if graduates were distributed randomly through the population, whereas the working class was getting less than half its share. The figures had changed little since the end of the First World War. "The general tendency towards inequality of educational attainment persists," he wrote.
Recently, researchers have found a slight improvement in the percentage of those from the lowest social classes entering university but only because the former polytechnics have been given university status.
A study by Brunel University's Professor Alan Smithers last November examined the change in the proportion of students with parents in some type of manual work entering university between 1986 and 1995. The percentage had risen from 23 per cent to 28 per cent. However, in 1993, the last year for which there are separate figures for the old universities and the polytechnics, working-class participation in the latter was 32 per cent while in the former it was only 22 per cent.
As Peter Scott, professor of education at Leeds University, puts it: "These people were already in higher education. The difference is that we now have 93 universities rather than 45."
Even the new status of the polytechnics has made less difference than might have been supposed, given their tradition of accepting more mature students and more part-time ones than their more traditional neighbours. Access courses to give people a second chance are dominated by middle- class women, and mature students in new universities tend to come from middle-class backgrounds, according to another study by Professor Smithers. He points out that the fact that 28 per cent of students now come from the lowest social groups is not impressive when those groups form 55 per cent of the population as a whole.
The Smithers research concentrates on the most recent expansion - in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Comparisons which go further back are more difficult to make because the size of the group traditionally categorised as "working class" has shrunk. Fewer people are going into manual jobs and those who do are having fewer children than their middle- class counterparts.
Whatever the nature of the change, Professor Scott points out that higher education is drawing its students from a wider social pool. "People are going to university who would not have done so 20 years ago."
And that, argues Professor Halsey, is important. If he were writing a paper today, he says, he would emphasise the need to take into account the absolute increase in numbers as well as the failure of the working class to improve their relative share.
Some universities have made determined efforts to attract groups who have shunned higher education but they have been more successful with women and ethnic minorities than with members of the white working class.
Professor Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University, says the big challenge is to bring in white working-class men. His university has wooed the ethnic minorities of the local community so that their percentage share in higher education now matches the percentage in the surrounding community. "But there is still a big job to be done with British white working-class men of mature age who have missed out." The secret, he believes, is for universities to root themselves in the local community and for more students to live at home.
Others suggest that further university expansion is vital if less advantaged students are to be offered the opportunities they deserve. David Watson, director of Brighton University and a member of the committee reviewing higher education under Sir Ron Dearing, believes that the Smithers research on the social composition of universities between 1978 and 1993 points inescapably to that conclusion. He says: "The proportion of working-class students went down between 1981 and 1984 when Sir Keith Joseph was squeezing university numbers. In times of retrenchment, institutions tend to act conservatively."
As he concluded in a recent paper: "The opponents of expansion would have to accept a system less fair to women, to ethnic minorities, to the working class and to older students, especially those with non-standard entry qualifications."
There is no evidence that universities discriminate against working-class students, though some make more efforts to draw them in than others. Even Oxford and Cambridge are trying to increase the proportion from disadvantaged background, though with limited success.
At London Guildhall all rejected applications are examined. Counselling is offered to those who need help or advice about improving qualifications.
But the problem does not lie mainly with the universities. By the time many applicants reach London Guildhall's rejection pile, it is already too late. Professor Smithers says his research shows that working-class children who have not succeeded by the age of 16 are unlikely to make it. The social composition of successful candidates at GCSE is remarkably similar to that at A-level and again at university.
A classless education system begins in the primary school. Schools have to find ways of countering the parental pushiness and know-how which gives middle-class children the edge in the academic race. Professor Smithers says: "Parents from higher-income backgrounds know how to make use of the education system. They send their children to independent schools or suss out the best comprehensive. They set realistic but challenging goals for their children."
He suggests that primary schools need to set goals for all children, regardless of their background and ability. Pupils would move on when the targets had been met. Only when everyone has atttained the same basic level by the age of 11 will universities have a chance of reaching more students at the bottom of the social heapn
A long road to broader horizons
'What put me off was the thought of finding the money for my living expenses'
For many working-class students, going to university is the first time anyone in their family has gained a higher education - and moved from one culture to another.
Cleve Hallworth, however, aged 22, a third-year student at the University of Hertfordshire, was following in her older brother's footsteps. The fact that she did not have to blaze a trail on her own made life easier, she thinks.
"What put me off was the thought of finding the money for my living expenses, because I knew the student grant would not be enough to cover them," she says. Ms Hallworth is on the full student grant, which this year is pounds 1,710 for students outside London. Her parents, who live in Manchester, have very little money: her father was a joiner but has been ill for several years and now lives on sickness benefit; her mother is a housewife.
Cleve makes ends meet by working in the students' union box office in the evenings and during the lunch hour, selling tickets for student events. That brings in an extra pounds 60 a week. She has also taken out student loans in each of her three years and will end up owing pounds 4,000 to the Student Loan Company.
A student of business administration, for years she aspired to go to university as a way of bettering herself. Being working-class has not presented any problems at university, she says, even though most of her friends come from more affluent homes. And she is confident that her degree will catapult her into a decent position in business. Her intention is to get a job in marketing or advertising - and pay off her student loan as quickly as possible. In the meantime, she has to decide whether to run for president of the students' unionn
Brendan O'Neill, 22, a student of Irish studies and politics at the University of North London, is similarly ambitious. He comes from a working- class Irish family in Burnt Oak, north London, and was expected to go to university after acquiring nine GCSEs and three A-levels at his Roman Catholic comprehensive.
"I wanted to better myself," he explains. "I didn't want to stay in Burnt Oak, because it's a poor, run-down area and there's not much you can do there.
"The way I see university is that it's the way to push yourself that bit further and get out of the situation you are born into. It's about getting an education and broadening your horizons. Just like James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Brendan is hoping to get a first and become an academic. He has encountered no problems being working-class at UNL. A lot of other students come from similar backgrounds, he says. In fact, he is disappointed that the university is not more middle-class. Educational standards are slipping, he thinks, with more and more people pouring into higher education and no increase in resourcesn
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