British universities are under threat. People working in higher education have known this for a while. But it isn’t funding cuts, or high fees, or casualisation, or Prevent, or even ‘safe spaces’, that threaten universities the most. No – it’s a working class girl with a UCAS form and a library card.
Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that ‘experts’ think universities are slipping down the international league tables because they are forced to recruit ‘diverse’ or ‘disadvantaged’ students. When I read Chris Patten’s comments, a couple of weeks later, that quotas for students from non-traditional backgrounds would lead to ‘lower standards’, it confirmed what I had always known: there are some people who think that people like me just don’t belong in higher education.
When I applied for university, I was a free school meals student at a sixth form at my local comprehensive school. When my university admitted me to study history as an undergraduate, they did so knowing that I wasn’t from a private school, or even a selective school; I wasn’t following my father or grandfather into the ‘family college’ (as I once heard someone describe Balliol). I knew I was different when I arrived: my family had never taken a foreign holiday or bought a new car, and it was sometimes a struggle to buy food or pay bills. This hadn’t marked me out as especially different at home in rural Lincolnshire, but it did at university in London. I remember talking about family members having been on the dole in a seminar about Thatcherism, and being looked at with unconcealed fascination, by students who had never met anybody like me.
The excellent teaching and personal support I got as an undergraduate meant that I never really felt like I didn’t belong. I benefited directly from widening participation initiatives, which were in their infancy when I was an undergraduate; for example, I received a series of small grants from my department to help to support me financially while I studied. When I returned to UCL to complete my PhD (which I was only able to do because both my MSc and PhD were fully funded), I worked for several years as part of the widening participation and outreach team. We brought able students from non-traditional backgrounds to UCL to give them a taste of university life and to encourage them to pursue a future in higher education. Working on these Saturday schools and summer schools was the most rewarding teaching that I did during my PhD.
Because, the thing is, these students – ‘diverse’ students, ‘disadvantaged’ students, students from ‘non-traditional backgrounds’ – can be some of the most rewarding to teach. They are certainly able to hold their own against the more ‘traditional’ intake of British elite universities. In fact, research has demonstrated that students from state schools actually outperform their peers from private schools who were admitted to university with the same A-levels.
This isn’t surprising, really: if you had to learn to motivate yourself throughout your GCSEs and A-levels because your teachers had to focus on keeping order in a disruptive classroom, if you had to carve out space on a kitchen table or in a public library to do your homework because you don’t have your own room or your own computer , if your grades are the result not of private tutoring but of dedicated and diligent independent work – then you are likely to be an excellent undergraduate student, capable of time-management, self-motivation, hard graft. If you have managed to navigate the UCAS admissions process yourself, because your parents didn’t go to university and don’t know how to help you, or because your school only sends a few students on to do degrees every year, you are probably going to be dedicated to making the most of what you have achieved.
Everybody should have access to higher education, regardless of background or upbringing (and, it should go without saying, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender). But this isn’t just an issue of fairness – these ‘non-traditional’ students are good for universities, too. When I read that recruiting “disadvantaged and ethnic minority students” was “distracting [universities] from research and high-calibre teaching”, I actually laughed. Widening participation is good for universities because it enables them to recruit the students who have the very highest potential, regardless of their personal circumstances. But more than this – it creates an environment where the very best research and teaching can be carried out.
I teach modern British history. I work on class difference, on post-imperial migration, on ideas about inequality and identity and ‘British values’ and what it means to live in Britain today. I can’t do that effectively if all of my students and all of my colleagues come from the same narrow group. In my teaching, I hope I make it easier for all of my students to celebrate their own diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, whatever they may be. Because academia needs diversity. If we are going to produce work that is relevant and exciting and interesting we need a plurality of voices, not the same old pale-male-stale viewpoints. Universities aren’t being threatened by these students – they are being enriched.
Charlotte Riley is a lecturer in 20th Century British History at the University of Southampton