Inequality between students from low and high income backgrounds is a big problem in many universities, especially Imperial. Data published by UCAS last year revealed that Imperial is top in student inequality in the UK, just ahead of Oxford and 8 places ahead of Cambridge. At Imperial, students from high income backgrounds are 11 times more likely to be accepted. These findings should serve as a wake-up call. There is a clear issue and we now must address it. Firstly, why is inequality such a big issue at Imperial? And more importantly, how can we solve it?
Perhaps the issue is in Imperial’s location. Being based in the most expensive city in the UK and an expensive neighbourhood within it could be a barrier for students from lower income families. Perhaps moving part of the campus in less central areas of London where living is more affordable would improve the situation.
However, the issue is not only in Imperial’s location as inequalities are seen in many universities, especially those that are high in rankings. In 2014, only 23% of state school students went into universities ranked in the top third compared with 65% from private schools. This could be due to high admission grades. Imperial requires a high A level performance like other high ranking universities. Students from lower income backgrounds are less likely to achieve these grades simply because state schools invested less in performance. This means that bright students, despite having the same capabilities, do worse in exams simply because they attended a school in a different area.
Shockingly, this can be realised by a ‘state school penalty’, in order to have the same chances of getting into high ranking universities, students have to get one grade higher in their A levels. So, even if disadvantaged students get the same results, they are less likely to be accepted. This problem is not unique to high ranking universities. In the UK, students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are twice less likely to get into university. Does this reflect a problem in England’s application system then? It could be that admissions teams have some implicit bias against students coming from more disadvantaged areas? In 2006, David Cameron suggested adopting name blind applications to deal with the problem and some universities have started to try it out.
“Kings have started giving offers with lower grades to disadvantaged students”
Universities are aware of the problem and trying to tackle it. Some have made big improvements but progress is much slower in top ranking universities, such as Imperial. We should look at universities such as LSE who have started training the admissions team against implicit bias. Kings have started giving offers with lower grades to disadvantaged students to help them get accepted. Some colleges at Oxford have also created a foundation year for disadvantaged students who have grades slightly lower than the required ones. Perhaps the reason Imperial came out as number 1 most unequal is that we just don’t do enough to help disadvantaged students. Why did we turn down the proposal of a working class liberation officer? Why are we not also pushing innovative schemes which address the issue?
However, we can’t be too harsh. Imperial does have activities to involve stimulate interest in STEM subjects at state schools as well as an incredibly generous bursary scheme and scholarships. Also, we must not forget Imperial is one of the only universities in the UK willing to act as a guarantor for students who need it. Imperial’s shameful statistics highlight a bigger issue.
The huge gap has deep roots. Even if they do achieve the grades, students from low income backgrounds are simply less likely to apply. This could simply be because low income students are brought up with different expectations. Children from wealthier families are often expected to go to university. But for a child from a different background, for example, whose parents didn’t go to university and was never expected to go himself, it makes sense that he is less likely to apply. Making the problem even worse, students at private schools receive more support. Also, students from more disadvantaged backgrounds face different challenges so perhaps university is not a priority, especially when they receive no help through the difficult application process. So even motivation wise (without considering the more technical aspects considered before) students from lower income backgrounds apply to university less irrespective of their capabilities. Finally, the problem doesn’t end once the students get into university. Students from lower incomes are more likely to drop out of their courses too.
Options like thinking about campus location and changing the application process are great and are a step in the right direction. However, I believe we should also tackle the real root of the problem. We should motivate low income students by showing them university is definitely an option for them and helping make applying less daunting to them. An excellent example of this are organisations which aim to reach out to bright, low income students to help them with applications. Such an organisation is Project Access, has actually set up a branch in Imperial this year. Their aim is to recruit Imperial students as mentors to help disadvantaged students apply. This I think is a great approach to the problem. Students can help students! By becoming mentors, or simply supporting the cause, our experience of getting into university could help decrease inequalities.