The Illusion Of Equality In Higher Education




A change in perspective


I recently moved away from my home in West Yorkshire to go to university, and the transition from a small, working-class town to a predominantly middle-class city was an eye-opening experience. I saw first-hand how the differences in students’ economic status and backgrounds affect the overall quality of their education. The consequences this has on students’ mindset, well-being and opportunities need to be brought into greater consideration by the UK government when making tuition fee policies to achieve a fairer society.


Inequalities are forgotten at the start of university life when students from across the globe are united by mutual feelings of fear and excitement. Upon leaving home for the first time, everyone is moved into the same simplistic accommodation and prepare to begin the journey into higher education together. But the delusion of a level playing field slowly reveals itself as privileges and advantages of the ‘real world’ spill into the experience.


Within my first week of university, the bubble burst. Quickly, rewards for a long summer of minimum wage, 60+ hour work weeks began withering away and I was dragged back into the reality of living costs. I was comforted by peers reassuring me that all of us students are in the same boat. I soon realised we were not all in the same boat, some of us were clinging onto driftwood whilst others were living it up in a luxury yacht.


Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.


Because we all come from such a range of backgrounds it can feel like you’re starting the same journey already at a disadvantage.



Does wealth equal opportunity?


Although the idea of higher education is sold on being the solution to social inequalities, it can actually do the opposite, and instead, highlight differences. The option of higher education is disproportionally more applicable to the wealthier side of society. Statistics show that,

“Those in the top income quantile group are more likely than those in the bottom quantile group to attend university (66% vs. 24%)”

This is likely due to the daunting tuition fee first introduced across the UK in 1998 by the Labour government, making it so that students were required to pay a yearly tuition fee of £1000. This fee has profoundly increased and is currently at £9,250 a year (even more for international students).


Meaning that taking out a tuition and maintenance loan is the only choice for the majority of people, very few can pay that large sum upfront. So, why would the government set the fee so high, knowing most would just have to loan the money from them anyway? Education shouldn't be a means of profit for the already powerful. Whilst a loan appears to be a helping hand in providing students of all incomes access to higher education, it comes with an even bigger price of committing to huge debt for years which carries more risks and repercussions for some.


The costs attached to educational success are contradictory to all the ideas we are led to believe growing up, the age-old narrative of; work hard in school to get good grades, secure a place at university then attain the desired job and life. The extortionate fees and debts expose this as a myth of meritocracy. This theory explains that success through ability and efforts put into education is not attainable in capitalist societies and is instead determined by class background.



Comparison distorts our perception of poverty


As I said at the start, a university lifestyle is the ultimate environment for comparing yourself to others, which as we all know never results in feeling good about yourself. The constant thoughts of “How is it fair that they can afford this and I can’t” are bound to cause a sense of relative deprivation amongst students.


Relative deprivation is a sociological theory credited to Garry Runciman and Ted Gurr, which describes:

“The subjective dissatisfaction caused by one person’s relative position to the situation or position of another.”

Students with lower incomes are likely to experience this whilst fighting to keep up with the costly social activities and resources that peers with wealthy backgrounds are accustomed to. Relative deprivation affects attitudes towards the opportunities we have and our stress levels as it can seem like an unfair competition at times.


This feeling of disadvantage will continue to exist as long as social inequalities are around but we need to remember that it is in fact, relative. Anyone who has lived at University or even knows a student will have heard the phrase “I’m so poor right now” so frequently that it’s become normalised to say. However, the emphasis on the “right now” part of the statement should encourage us to challenge that self-description because it’s probably wrong. As Aja Barber says in her book ‘Consumed’.

“..being broke is a state; poverty is systematic”

Taking a broader perspective allows us to recognise our position of privilege on a comparative global scale.


Just to be in a situation where higher education is a feasible option indicates a level of privilege that shouldn't be taken for granted, as it's far from accessible to everyone. However, this doesn’t mean that the government couldn’t do more to ensure inclusivity and equality within higher education by rewarding talent and commitment with opportunity rather than financial ability.