It’s morally wrong to impose class expectations on university access

Published: 11 Apr 2017

Julia Shervington, Communications Executive

As a society we have to ask ourselves why students from the most affluent homes are almost 2.5 times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest. We know that intelligence is not defined by where you are born, although it is nurtured by circumstance. And we know that the reasons for the discrepancy are numerous and complex. We also know that it is only right that we focus on the latter group, as clearly far too many poor students who should go to university don’t. But if that’s true, so is the corollary: that there are too many rich students who are at university but shouldn’t be.

When I was 17, it was assumed that I would go to university. It wasn’t just because I was predicted to do well in my A-levels, nor that my parents wanted it or my school expected it. It was also because I was one of the 7 per cent of the population who attended an independent school. Whatever the reason, there was no discussion about whether I should go, but only about which subject I should study and which university I could realistically aspire to.

I wasn’t convinced it was the right decision. I had spent years studying for exams and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go straight into yet more rigorous learning. I turned down my offers and took a year out; got a job, visited friends at their universities, and made up my own mind. And I was lucky: while not one of the brightest students, I was hard-working and knew how to organise my time and revise hard to achieve good grades. Having been at boarding school for two years, I knew about living away from home, managing my allowance, and mixing with new people. I was confident, I had actively participated in extra-curricular activities and I was resilient. I had the personal and academic skills to do well at university, and so I went.

Not everyone is so lucky. A friend of mine, also at an independent school, had the same expectations – she wanted to go and it was expected that she would. Although she had a higher IQ than me, her learning style was very different; hours spent in front of a book, researching for an essay or presenting in class did little for her. But she still went, and after a number of years she left university without a degree. Should she have gone there in the first place? And why were we both subjected to expectations that weren’t necessarily right for either of us?

What our experiences illustrate is the toxic power of expectations. It’s not a question of intelligence; many people are very smart but are unable to thrive in a university environment, while others simply have no desire to. But the expectation that they will go is so strong they never really get to choose. My friend should have been advised of alternatives to university, offered something that would better suit her learning style and help her progress into the professions. No wonder 6.2 per cent of students fail to complete their university degrees.

Yet the negative expectations placed on lower-income students are even more powerful. Far fewer of them will have family members who have gone to university, so they may lack role models, and therefore do not consider it a viable option. Even if they do consider it, they are more likely to focus on lower-tier or local institutions out of a misplaced sense of inadequacy. The results are stark: children eligible for free school meals achieve grades 20-30% lower at GCSE than those not eligible for free school meals.

The truth is that everyone learns and progresses in different ways. Some people – rich and poor – would be better suited to higher level or degree apprenticeships; some to on-the-job training; some to specialist schools (such as arts or drama) and, yes, some to university. Why should these paths be decided on the basis of class rather than ability and affinity?

How can we fix this? Part of it is about reshaping people’s expectations. At Villiers Park Educational Trust we work with bright students from lower-income backgrounds over a four year period, showing them what they can really accomplish. In 2016 82 per cent of them made an informed decision to go to university compared to 19.5 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket and 46.3 per cent of the most advantaged across the country.

This proves that as a society we should not, and need not, accept these divisive expectations – not least because it is morally wrong to impose a ‘class ceiling’ on university access and as a consequence access to the professions, but also because educational inequality costs the economy an estimated £1.3 trillion a year. I’m not suggesting that affluent students don’t go to university, nor am I suggesting that only those students with the best grades go to university. Just as intelligence is not limited by place of birth, nor is the ability to thrive with university style life and learning.

We should all be doing everything we can to empower every student with the skills and knowledge to research different options, analyse what best suits their ability and to have the passion and aspirations to pursue the best route FOR THEM into the professions.

But universities must also consider what more they can do to make sure students are prepared for university life and study before they apply. Businesses, too, should consider their own expectations, and recruit from a wider range of courses, institutions and backgrounds.

And if you’re a student who feels like everyone expects you to apply to university but you’re not sure if you should, or, if you have never considered it as an option for you, then please take one thing from this post: you owe it to yourself to consider ALL your options.


An abbreviated version of this post appeared in the Telegraph Opinion section on Tuesday 27 March: ‪