It is no secret that state-school students have faced, and continue to face, significant barriers when accessing higher education – especially in comparison to their private-school counterparts. Following the A-Level results day fiasco, many state-school students had their initial grades downgraded on the basis of an algorithm that used postcodes and income as a deciding factor. The 93% Club are a new society that aim to redress this social inequality which can permeate into higher education and beyond.
Speaking to the co-founders, Finley and Tania, we discussed the core aims of the society.
T: ‘This is a society that aims to bridge the gap between private and state-school students. We are planning to provide a wide range of careers and social events to create this community at UCL for state-school students who could potentially feel a bit out of touch with the careers or social aspect of university life at UCL. It’s a nation-wide network, and we have 16 different universities involved, which provides a great system for former state-school students who didn’t have access to alumni networks. The careers events will include online events, including hop-in platforms, as well as networking opportunities for multiple career sectors. We are quite an all-encompassing society, and we want to foster a good community.’
F: ‘We’re trying to break into professions that are inaccessible to many state-school students. We’re trying to create an expansive network across “elite” fields that many state-school student wouldn’t be able to access as easily.’
Particularly, Russell Group universities such as UCL appear particularly inaccessible to state-school students. Beyond creating a community, the 93% Club want to tackle negative sentiments that exist towards state-school students.
F: ‘The more top-10 schools in the country are more inaccessible – you have to have your sights set on them from the start. You have to break down these barriers at these institutions especially, and explain to state-school students that these aren’t gated institutions – they’re actually potentially more accessible than they believe. It’s important to have something within the system and to show that the system can be changed.’
T: ‘Coming from a state-school background, which dominated my region, when you come to UCL – a lot of students come from private schools. I was initially looking at this society through a very content lens. However, I saw a lot of negative commentary towards state schools, with a lot of prejudice channelled towards them. As well as creating a community, we want to break down this negative perception of state schools that exists.’
As well as understanding the role of class as a limiting factor, it is important to view this matter in an intersectional light. I asked about the racial dimension within access, and role that race plays within this equation.
T-: ‘Looking at what happened to an Oxford student who spoke out against racism this year, there is still a long way to go in a national perspective. For example, English and History have fairly limited curriculums – and not just at UCL, but the whole nation has a long way to go. In the Bristol medicine course, they started this campaign to ensure that the symptom checking process was “decolonised”, to cater to people of colour as well. In general, in education, there needs to be progress in all sectors. I think we are taking strides towards a more positive outcomes.’
F: ‘The university more holistically has a long way to go in addressing the intersections of the inequalities we see in class, which are not only mirrored with race, but intensified by it. We want to drive forward a perspective across a spectrum of different people. The issues of gender, race and class intersect a lot; we could do a lot of work with other societies because social mobility isn’t solely driven by class.’
What conscious effort should UCL make to ensure that they provide adequate opportunities to students who come from working class backgrounds and/or state schools?
T: ‘To my knowledge, UCL provide a few bursaries, but more could be done. Before coming to UCL, students may question if this is accessible for them, as it’s regarded as a prestigious institution, and they may be deterred from applying here, especially due to the lack of bursaries offered to them. UCL could do with expanding their funding options and providing better research for non-white subjects.’
Moreover, access can also be limited due to geographical barriers; students from the North may not find it as convenient to visit or apply to UCL, which exists in a separate bubble in London.
T: ‘We’re partnering with a company called “Zero Gravity”, who will find students from more disadvantaged boroughs, and they will be paired with a mentor from that university. This is one of the gaps in opportunities between state and private-school students. We’re hoping to go around London boroughs, and maybe even beyond.’
F: ‘We hope to provide some manpower to demonstrate the accessibility of these institutions. We want to show that there will be support available once you get to university. It’s important to ask representatives what socio-economic aid is made available at these universities.’
The recent A-Level fiasco showed us how state-school students are at an innate disadvantage, because of the way this educational system operates. Do you think the existing system needs to be significantly changed?
T: ‘A-Levels are an inherently broken system because students are graded against each other. That is why a supportive community is needed at UCL. So many people come into UCL feeling quite jaded. A lot of students from state-school backgrounds go to university with bad mental health and an imposter syndrome. So many people feel so isolated in this huge city, and having a supportive community in general can help you feel less disorientated.’
F: ‘There needs to be more of a radical approach to how we approach higher education. The government strategy really affected some students’ mental health. The system needs to be adjusted more holistically into a more catered representation of your academic abilities. There needs to be reform and change, and hopefully it’s coming in small steps.’
Even when state-school students go to university, a study conducted by the IoE found that privately schooled students earn 35% more than their state-school peers by age 25. This suggests that the problem of access is not wholly eradicated just by going to university.
F: ‘It’s a systemic issue in a lot of ways. It’s a similar reproduction of the gender pay gap in some ways, as there is no rational reason to earn less than your peers who are doing the same job as you. It’s necessary to encourage a culture of accountability. Also, we’re not exclusively for state-school kids, as perhaps private school students can join in and help understand their privilege.’
T: ‘There’s a barrier in communication. There’s a perception that affirmative action is happening against those with privilege in certain fields, and there needs to be more discourse surrounding this idea of privilege, as some people tend to get very defensive.’
Thank you to the 93% Club for taking the time to talk to us; it is imperative that societies like this are emerging at a time when the discourse around inequality is shifting greatly, especially in higher education institutions.
This appeared in CG Issue 73