I lead a secret double life.
And by “lead a secret double life” I mean “like many early-career PhD graduates I work two jobs, which I complain about constantly”. In my “other life” I work at a local sixth-form college in a very low-uptake area of Birmingham where it is basically my job to help students with UCAS applications.
This part is the easy part – telling students what they should include in their personal statements (like, something personal to them, rather than just a vague description of the subject and why it is inspiring) and helping them with their grammar.
A lot of the students I work with are enrolled in a high-achievers programme, and these kids are getting A*s in everything, and they’re bright and confident and passionate about their subject.
The difficulty is not getting many of these students ready for top universities, but trying to emphasise to them that this is an option that is available to them, especially when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge.
The college organises trips and has staff like me who are Oxbridge alumni, but sometimes I wonder if that really helps. After a recent trip to an Oxbridge college, a very bright student commented that they didn’t want to go because everyone there is “posh”.
I’m aware of how inadequate an advocate I am in danger of seeming to students of this kind of background. I’m a white lady with a southern accent from a painfully middle-class background. I can imagine the obstacles these students face, but I don’t really know them for myself.
But, if people like me who have had help along the way don’t push against this culture that sees what the THE has described as a ‘Middle Class Arms Race‘ for university, nothing is ever going to change. I grew up in a affluent rural area with parents who always encouraged me to go to university and who supported me by contributing to my fees so that the debt of study wasn’t crippling. I meet bright students every day who have an immense amount of talent, but don’t have the same support at home, and it is heartbreaking to think that the only reason they are not going to chase a similar dream to mine is that they believe it’s not for “people like them.”
There are new challenges to university now. Fees in excess of £9,250 a year mean that living at home is more desirable than living in halls for students whose parents are not able to provide financial support. We’ve gone from a culture in which going to university also gave you life lessons in living alone (I ate a whole chocolate orange for breakfast in Freshers’ Week because it was 1/2 off in W.H. Smith and just to prove I could – I would not recommend) and the opportunity to escape parental supervision to a culture in which you’re lucky if you can live at home because you’ve escaped a further £15–20,000 of debt in fees, depending on where you are planning to rent.
I worry about this culture of debt, not just because it’s unsustainable, and I dream of a world of free education for all. My peers and colleagues who went through the 9K fees talk about seeing the payback on the loans as a kind of “graduate tax”. Sure, it’s a lot of debt, but they push it to the back of their minds.
I’m more worried about the students that it puts off entirely. I’m worried about a world in which universities are not really for anyone who has passion for the subject and the talent. I want to do whatever I can to fight the access, outreach and widening participation fights on every front possible, because it matters.
If study is only for those with the money to do it, that does, in my opinion, endanger its value. Intellectual curiosity, knowledge, critical endeavour and the opportunity to learn for learning’s sake shouldn’t be just for the privileged few.