The university system doesn’t work for white working-class kids – here’s how we can fix it

Education inequality deepens the divide between communities, writes Ryan Henson. But there’s a way to ensure that everybody gets a fair chance in life

Sunday 10 December 2023 13:59 GMT
Until attitudes change, urging more students to choose an apprenticeship over university risks letting young people down
Until attitudes change, urging more students to choose an apprenticeship over university risks letting young people down (PA Archive)

I was the first person in my entire extended family to go to university. Conversations with relatives went like this: I was told about tuition fee debt, reminded that some trades paid better than graduate schemes, and, most destructively, it was strongly implied that university was for other people. Not for people like us. Not for working-class people. At no point were the joy and opportunity that might come from breaking out of the lives we lived, explained, discussed, or encouraged.

A lot of my family’s reaction made sense. The system can feel rigged against working-class people – because to some extent it is. Children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds start school 4.5 months behind and then go on to finish school 18.1 months adrift of their more affluent peers. And that’s before we get to the 7 per cent who are privately educated in our country yet still disproportionately dominate all the top jobs and influential positions.

Attitudes need to change. When I won a scholarship that paid the fees for my Masters degree and gave me £5,000 living costs, rather than encourage me to accept, my parents urged me to turn it down and go full time at the pub where I was working as an undergraduate. They believed that earning £15,000 a year pulling pints was far better than a debt-free post-graduate degree. For some, this might be right. But in most cases, this lack of aspiration in white working-class communities holds young people back when we should be pushing them forward.

When it comes to university education, it is often the key that unlocks a professional career for people from white working-class backgrounds. Though it is important to note that your likelihood of getting a degree doesn’t always translate to your likelihood of getting a professional job. Young people from Pakistani, Black African and mixed ethnicities have a higher chance of getting a degree than those from a white British background but have either similar or lower chances of getting a professional job.

Yet, many other ethnic groups in the United Kingdom get to university more than white British working-class people. For example, if you are Chinese-British and lower working-class, you are almost three times more likely than a white lower working-class British person to go to university. Why is this happening, and why does nobody seem to care?

I care, and I’m fed up with hearing that fewer students should be going to university. While the intention is sensible, the reality is that it just reinforces class divides. How many senior politicians, leading CEOs, editors of national newspapers, doctors or lawyers do you know who have encouraged their own children to forgo university and take up apprenticeships instead – even if their children aren’t all that academic? None? No, me neither.

Middle-class parents should be proud to tell their dinner party guests that their child, despite an expensive education, is far more suited to working with their hands than they are to cracking the books. In Paris, a head waiter at a fine restaurant is a career choice held in high regard by every section of society. Could we say the same about the UK?

Until attitudes change, urging more students to choose an apprenticeship over university risks letting young people down. Lots of bright working-class kids will miss out on becoming doctors, barristers, or even prime ministers, and lots of less academically able middle-class kids will be forced to limp through higher education, instead of finding a fulfilling alternative. This is divisive, bad for our economy, and fundamentally unjust.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing a trade or staying in the same town you grew up in. Not everyone can or should move away. But nor should university be dismissed out of hand as it so often is. White British working-class children face far fewer challenges than many other communities. Though they encounter snobbery, they are not plagued by racism. They usually speak English from birth, and benefit from community ties and deeper roots in a country with the world’s sixth largest economy. So what is it that’s holding them back?

Ingrained attitudes, developed over decades, cause far too many to believe that university is a pointless waste of money. This thought rarely occurs to middle-class parents. Higher education broadens the range of choices a young person has, and by extension, the rewards they can reap, and that is why everyone should have the chance to attend.

White working-class communities should push their children to aim as high as they possibly can. Aspiring to go to university if you are working class should be a badge of honour, not something to keep quiet or be embarrassed about. Similarly – politicians, middle-class parents, and private schools must accept that affluent children have no God-given right to attend university.

If an apprenticeship is good enough for young people on a council estate, it should be deemed good enough for all young people.

If university is good enough for the people that run our country, then it is good enough for working-class people too.

Only when this is widely accepted will we be able to hold sensible conversations about the cost of tuition fees, the quality of degrees, and how many young people should be going to university.

Until attitudes change, I fear we can expect wider geographical divides, increased culture wars between graduates and non-graduates, and a society and economy that suffers accordingly.

Ryan Henson is commissioner at the Social Mobility Commission

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