After experiencing gender and class-based discrimination whilst she attended Imperial College London, Martha Hilton was driven to establish the researching charity, Educating All at RECLAIM
Higher education is often a rewarding life experience for young people. It encourages independence and critical thinking, and helps to enable social mobility by enhancing career opportunities after graduation. Despite this, Britain’s ‘elite’ universities often remain unwelcoming for working class and first generation students. Hidden codes, cultural capital, and access to influential networks still remain significant barriers to working class young people applying and progressing through higher education.
Successive governments have driven up social mobility’s presence on the public agenda and pressure is being put on universities to increase admissions of students from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds. Theresa May, in her speech as the new Prime Minister, promised that her government will be driven “not by the interests of the privileged few” but by the needs of working class families. She also pointed out that “if you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university [and that] if you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.”
Despite this, it is too often the case that our country’s higher education system entrenches rather than eliminates inequality. Not only are working class young people less likely to go to university in the first place, they are also more likely to drop out and less likely to achieve the highest degree classifications once they are there. Research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) showed that from those who achieved ABB in their A-levels, 77 per cent of students from the most advantaged areas go on to gain a first or upper-second class degree, compared to 67 per cent of those from the most disadvantaged areas.
Having transitioned from a state school in Manchester to studying physics at Imperial College London, I was shocked by the level of privilege I experienced at university. Being female, I was already in the minority, there being a female/male ratio of 1:5 on my course. On top of that, I struggle to think of one person I met at university who did not go to a selective school.
Imperial have recently commissioned a report into the institutional culture and the impact on gender equality. It found evidence of “ingrained misogyny”, of women “being silenced”, and of bullying and discrimination linked to the “elite white masculinity” of the majority of the staff population. The report stated that it is difficult to embrace equality and diversity within an institution which is “so profoundly gendered, classed and raced”.
Having experienced classism and racism at university, I applaud these findings but recognise that immediate actions are needed. At Imperial, I witnessed a lecturer referring to Emmy Noether, one of the greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century, as a “clever girl” and was asked to serve drinks at the Imperial College Boat Club after the men’s boat race. Gender inequality was a serious issue for me at university.
Having become increasingly passionate about gender and class equality within higher education and academia, I was motivated to start the Educating All project. Educating All has been led by myself and Terry Manyeh, another recent graduate originating from Manchester, and has been commissioned by the social change and leadership development charity, RECLAIM. Having both experienced significant barriers at university, myself and Terry are campaigning for the student voice to be heard in the debate on social mobility within higher education.
Talking to working class students for research purposes made me realise that scale of the problem we are trying to address. Xavier Greenwood, Classics student at Balliol College, Oxford said that the university is, “a place too steeped in privilege to champion social inclusivity in any meaningful way.” He went on to say that “success and happiness at Oxford is massively geared towards the neuro-typical, well-financed, white, male, privately-educated student”.
We hope that the Educating All report starts a meaningful conversation around class at university that delivers real, practical change. It is clear to me that much more needs to be done in order to truly provide a level playing field for working class young people at university. We will be working with universities to make this happen in 2017.
In this era of political uncertainty, social mobility and education need to be a top priority for government, employers and educators. Universities have a responsibility to provide equal opportunities to students, regardless of postcode, background or income. Education is a right, not a privilege, and universities need to make sure they are accessing and supporting pupils from the wide and diverse talent pool that this country has to offer.
If you are a student that would like to contribute to our campaign or have an opinion about issues raised in this article please email firstname.lastname@example.org.