Great class divide hits universities: Social chasm still exists between state and private school pupils


A social chasm still exists between state and private school pupils while at university, new research will claim today.

The findings of a research project jointly mounted by Bristol University and UWE Bristol (University of the West of England) will say this is largely triggered by accommodation costs - with students saying the more expensive university accommodation will be snapped up by those who are better off while poorer students will opt for cheaper accommodation.

“There was a social chasm between private and state school students, often exacerbated by university accommodation costs,” according to the report.  

The study of 40 students from each university also goes on to show that working class students have a very different experience of university life than their middle class counterparts.

“The team found that getting in to university was seen as normal, even expected for many middle class youngsters while for working class students it was usually a choice that required more consideration, effort and strategic planning and was often a hope rather than an expectation,” says the report.

“Many working-class parents were unable to help with the university application process but did provide emotional support and encouragement.”

It adds: “Once at university working-class students faced considerable economic hardships, while middle-class students were cushioned by their parents’ financial support.

“Financial constraints limited working-class students in terms of extra-curricular activities - with many of them having to work in mundane jobs during term-time - unlike a lot of those from wealthier backgrounds.”

However, one bonus point for the more disadvantaged students was that their experiences instilled in them a sense of resilience which stood them in good stead when they entered the world of work.

Middle class students, though, were far more able to draw upon family resources and had access to influential social networks to help them get work experience or internships while they studied - crucial in accessing employment.

The researchers also found that female students at both universities were more likely to limit their career aspirations through considering childcare.

Professor Harriet Bradley, professor of employment research at UWE Bristol who led the research, added:  “Our main finding is that class and gender make a difference to the way the benefits of a university education are accessed.

“We found that the social, cultural and economic capital that middle class students arrive at university with can be used to smooth the path through university and into work at the end.

“For example, some students had a network of connections with relevant professions acquired through family prior to university - along with economic capital which provided a financial buffer during their university career.

“These were not evenly distributed amongst students from the outset and the presence or absence of these factors had an effect on the way students were able to use the opportunities on offer at both universities.”

One thing both sets of students were agreed upon, though, was that few felt they were getting value for money now fees had soared to up to £9,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the head of a City-based charity dedicated to aiding disadvantaged students has hit out  at the current “obsession” that all school leavers should be aiming for a university place.

Sir John Stuttard, former Mayor of London who has just been chosen as Master-elect for the Company of Educators, said: “We have the prospect of many graduates leaving university with large debts and with degrees in subjects that give little or no career choice - other than to work in coffee shops or bars.”

Sir John bemoaned the demise of the former polytechnics, saying: “It was a sad day when the technical colleges were made into universities.  It encouraged them to turn their backs on vocational education.”

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