Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Social Mobility

This report published yesterday got me thinking about my days at Edinburgh University, and about a couple of conversations I witnessed at the time.

The first was outside the library, when I overheard two girls talking about the queues to access university computers.

Girl one: ‘Yes, I had to wait 30 minutes for a computer yesterday’

Girl two: ‘I called my Daddy last night, and he said “don’t worry darling – I’ll put a couple of grand in your account in the morning and you can get yourself a laptop”. What a relief.”

Then, there was another conversation in one of my tutorials when we were discussing poverty.

Student one: ‘Well you do have huge inequalities. For example, I’ve seen students from this university doing their food shopping at Marks and Spencer’

Student two: ‘I’ve seen YOU in Marks and Spencer food department’

Student one: ‘Yes, I WORK there!’

Not that I’m having a go at either the girl who came from a family that could afford to put £2000 in her account, which allowed her to buy a laptop to help with her studies, or the student who could afford to do her weekly food shop in M&S.

However, most of us were not in such a privileged position at university. Most folk I knew got by with a mixture of grants, student loans, bank overdrafts and credit cards, part-time jobs and a modest parental contribution. And we still left university in debt…

Edinburgh University did have a significant proportion of students from wealthy families – for example, there were a couple of blokes in my year driving round in cars that would have paid me through university a couple of times over. And the advantages of that wealth were very apparent at the time. Students from wealthy families had almost always been privately educated and had experience of debating (important in a politics class), and a great deal more confidence than those of us who went to state school. They didn’t have to work while at university, and so had more time to study and/or get unpaid relevant work experience. They also didn’t have the stress of money worries either, and the distraction of working out how to pay the electricity bill rather than thinking about the essay they should be writing. Plus, they could just buy the books on the reading list, and not have to spend hours in the photocopy room at the library.

I’m not complaining about my time at university – I loved it! Plus, I wouldn’t swap my experiences for the world. For one thing, juggling work with my studies was great for my time management skills.

However, it is clear that coming from a wealthy family does give people a huge advantage throughout their years in education and early working life.

How to level the playing field? Well, that’s a question that will take longer to answer than the remaining minutes of my lunch hour permit.


Anonymous said...

Many good points here. I don't think a private education gives students an advantage at university, where the academic playing field is pretty level despite laptops (which everyone has now) and not having to hold down a paid job (the rich kids don't tend to spend their spare time studying). They perhaps have a more coached approach to work, so are less likely to be original but also unlikely to fail.

However something definitely happens on the way in, and on the way out again as employers differentiate between the 2:1s (or even give a hand up to selected 2:2s). I have seen a lot written about the first aspect but very little about the second, which it seems is even more insidious. A postgrad course is now almost obligatory. Even the brightest students able to secure funding for advanced postgrad training usually have to self-fund a masters first.

By the way, unpaid internships should be banned under employment law.

The Armchair Sceptic (Wilted Rose) said...

Excellent analysis, Julie. Though, in the absence of grammar schools and academic selection, it's very difficult for many working-class kids to get to university, and become socially mobile in the first place.

I don't see a return to selection happening in Scotland (or in non grammar school parts of England), but we do need to do something to sort out the effect of the education system upon people's prospects for social mobility.

Jim Carveup said...


Can the public service broadcaster
be trusted?

The BBC and Kenny MacAskill

Niall Robertson said...

Well, offer paid internships for a start, as opposed to just handing out meagre lunch and travel expenses! I'm a Scot living down in London who just finished an internship with an MP, and I was handed out the bare minimum, food and travel. Though it was a great experience, a minimum wage would have helped motivate! It would also mean that people with poorer backgrounds would be able to step onto the ladder, when it comes to getting involved in politics!