The barriers that remain to entering higher education: can we change the status quo?

A disadvantaged background doesn’t have to be a barrier to success, so why in the 21st century does it remain a barrier? When you think of a university student, you may think of someone fresh out of school, who studies full-time, and who is able to prioritise their studies over other demands on their time. However, the reality is that students who don’t fit this picture are losing out. Inequalities around poverty in the United Kingdom identified 20.2% of University students from 134 educational institutes in 2018 came from a disadvantaged background, compared to 8.6% recorded in 2009.  

Students who use non-traditional routes to enter higher education have a range of different needs and circumstances that are often different to the atypical student described above which are not addressed. The Journal of Higher Education characterises non-traditional students in three ways: (1) >23 years and older at time of enrolment; (2) different from the majority of students in terms of ethnicity, low socioeconomic status, first-generation, and employment status; (3) attends part-time education, works full time, financially independent, single parent, does not have a college education. Current university practices limit the ability of these non-traditional students from engaging with their studies.

Time constraints

Research has shown non-traditional students are often excluded by the issue of time which can threaten their ability to sustain sufficient time, energy, and headspace to meet the demands of their studies. A standard university week is largely structured around a typical day, with scheduled lectures, seminars, practical sessions, and tutorials. Students are expected to contribute additional hours outside of these scheduled sessions collimating to a ~40 hour week. However, many full-time students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are involved in paid work which places an additional strain on their time. Entering higher education can be difficult for most students, however, first-generation students  from a low socio-economic background are more likely to experience symptoms of depression, higher levels of stress, and a decreased sense of belonging in higher educational institutes commonly. This is believed to be because of the extensive workload a university degree brings alongside working a part- or full-time job, caring needs, and financial worries. These students undoubtedly go through a different level of toughness during their time at university, secondary to their studies. For me, working alongside my university studies required meticulous planning to avoid these factors and while universities acknowledge these realities, they tend to regard working part-time as a choice for the student and this is often avoided in conversations regarding students’ performance. However, those who have worked during their university education will know it’s a necessity more than a luxury choice.

Much like many people I’d find out that entering higher education was not the greatest challenge to gaining a university education, it was the challenges a first-generation student from a poor socioeconomic background would face. When you set your sights on progressing from a bachelor’s degree to masters, and then finally a PhD there is a range of additional skills you need to build up to stand out amongst the wealth of other students looking to follow a similar path. However, an additional skill such as unpaid internships and charity work can often prevent social mobility amongst disadvantaged students simply by offering no financial support. The Sutton Trust highlighted unpaid internships come with a pay penalty rather than a pay boost with a typical internship in London costing £1,019, and that these types of internships are dominated by the most-privileged of young people. Progress is being made, with some organisations offering paid internships that help bridge the gap and advance social mobility.

The new challenges

The coronavirus pandemic has led many universities including the University of Surrey to shift towards a hybrid teaching model. This offers a measure of flexibility, which may help students dealing with other priorities. However, it brings along new challenges. Many students from a poor background lack the resources to participate in online lectures and tutorials, such as up-to-date computing equipment, stable broadband, and a quiet study space creating barriers to participation which previously were largely overlooked. The risk of this pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities making it harder than ever for these students to engage with their studies. While technology is widely acknowledged as a limiting factor in participation, some universities are trying to close this gap by offering free laptops to students on enrolment with the expressed purpose of advancing social mobility amongst students. The Office of Students highlights some programmes spearheaded by universities to support disadvantaged students before the coronavirus pandemic and how to increase participation, retention, and attainment following the pandemic.

The hope is this brief jumble of statements will start a conversation on how we can make it easier for those who will come after us, and how we can ensure that universities like the University of Surrey identify and encourage these demographics to participate in higher education. This is because this one problem in the sea of current problems will self-evidently not self-correct. I’m happy for those who would like to email me and start this discussion