Class divisions

OK, I know many of you are tired of league tables, but bear with me on this one. What would you say is being measured by a UK university league table in which London Metropolitan University and the University of Greenwich come out on top, and the stragglers right at the bottom include the Universities of St Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge? Well, I suppose it’s not a difficult one to figure out: this league table, published this week in the Guardian newspaper, records what percentage of students come from a manual occupational background. So for example, Oxford University in the academic year 2008-09 admitted 2,875 first year students, of whom only 275 came from a manual employment background. Actually, St Andrews didn’t admit any from that background at all.

I shouldn’t really spoil the story, but when you get to the top of the league table the positions may be right, but the numbers given don’t add up at all: but hey, it’s the Guardian

But more interesting still is the proportion of manual background students in particular degree subject areas. Medicine, history, philosophy and languages have the least participation by students from a manual background, while the highest participation is in education, agriculture and computer science.

One of the real risks faced by an education sector during a financial crisis is that of social exclusion and apartheid. As I know from my DCU term of office, we always had to work extremely hard in order to maintain a reasonable diversity of background. It was also noticeable that as the recession appeared, we lost applicants from poorer backgrounds, even when we were able to offer them financial support.

Amidst all the wonderful things that higher education does, it also has the capacity to entrench social divisions, and constant care (and, to be honest, lots of money) is needed to avoid that. Right now we are in real danger of allowing the re-gentrification of higher education, and we had better get moving to stop it from gathering pace.

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14 Comments on “Class divisions”

  1. Vincent Says:

    ‘It was also noticeable that as the recession appeared, we lost applicants from poorer backgrounds, even when we were able to offer them financial support’.
    If that group has all but vanished from you, the others must be cutting up into the skilled sector.
    And I wonder about the word ‘Lost’ for beyond the passiveness of that word there is a denial of the active shouldering out of that section of the community.
    As to the UK, it’s hardly a shock all the same. The unemployed and manual are hardly the cohort targeted by the schools teaching a classical education. And they point to the weaknesses of teaching in the general state school with the absence of good science, languages, Arts and Maths.
    The only difference here is that kids from that background are between St Andrews and Oxford where because of ability streaming they do not get a good schooling either.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    So just under 10% of the incoming cohort of students in Oxford are from a manual background? Interesting. How does that compare with our universities? A rough estimate of the same proportion for UCD (for those entering 1999-2006), is about 8%.
    This is excluding the unknowns. If you include agricultural workers, its about 9%. If you were to exclude foreign students (which Oxford gets a lot of & who are typically well-off) then this would probably make the comparison even more in favour of Oxford.
    Having worked and studied in both universities I am not that surprised. Its also worth remembering that Oxford has discretion over who it admits whereas Irish universities have very little.
    Making these comparisons is difficult because one can’t be sure these numbers are really comparable. For example the proportion of manual workers in the two populations (i.e. UK and Ireland) may be different. But its probably safe to say that the proportions in the two universities are not that different and Oxford’s is better, if anything.
    So, the next time you see a film or an article depicting Oxford as a place of overwhelming privelage, unrepresentative of the rest of the country and full of Hooray Henrys & Henriettas, think again.

    • Kevin, I don’t think this adds up. If you take the HEA published data for the same academic year – i.e. 2008-09 – then the proportion of new entrants to Irish universities that year who were from an equivalent background amounts to about 23 per cent. I really doubt that UCD’s share was that much below the national average (though maybe a little, you know, D4 and all that…).

      • Jilly Says:

        When you say ‘Irish universities’ for that HEA data, do you mean that literally (ie. only the 7 universities)? Because the socio-economic profile of the ITs tends to be lower overall than that of the universities. So if the figure of 23% is for all of third level, I’d expect the universities’ figure to be significantly lower.

      • kevin denny Says:

        The data is that supplied to me by UCD for those 6 years so its as good as it gets. But I will double check.

        • kevin denny Says:

          Belfield Revisited
          Ha! I was right. So those from “manual” backgrounds are 7.96% of those for whom we know the background and 7% over all.
          These are incoming undergrads over 6 years. That should be representative of the under-grad body since the retention rate is pretty high.

          socio-economic code | %
          farmers | 9.17
          other ag workers | 0.87
          higher professional | 28.36
          lower professional | 7.35
          employers/managers | 18.62
          salaried employees | 14.73
          ntermediate/non-manual | 1.66
          other non-manual | 1.30
          skilled manual | 5.15
          semiskilled manual | 1.12
          unskilled | 0.82
          no answer/unknown | 10.84
          Total | 100.00

          (non response rate for UCD is 10% not bad)

  3. Vincent Says:

    How exactly did the HEA come at such data. Is this some extrapolation from a dance with the numbers of those on the full grant.

    • Perry Share Says:

      My understanding is that students provide this information on registration. But it would be interesting to know the non-response rate.

      • Jilly Says:

        Now you mention it, I’ve just had a flashback to registration as a 1st year undergraduate. There was a form to be filled in which included a checklist of your father’s occupation. The checklist was hilariously long and detailed, and included the occupation of ‘pastry and cake maker’. I remember now that my section of the long queue snaking through the registration room was very taken with this particular occupational category, and quite a few people ticked it for a joke. Which just goes to show how unreliable data can be, I suppose!

        • iainmacl Says:

          my father’s profession, Jilly, was genuinely ‘basket weaver’. wonder if that option was on your list – otherwise I’d have felt deeply disenfranchised.

  4. Kevin, where are those figures taken from? They don’t align with the HEA data at all. They are also counter-intuitive: when you have participation rates of over 60 per cent, you are going to get a larger slice of the manual population.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Ferdinand, those are the raw data from UCD admissions for 1st year students entering betweem 1999 and 2006. Its sitting on my computer. So its hard to see how it could be wrong.
      When you say “larger”, we would need to make a comparison for UCD for an earlier period. But I don’t have the data for that: do you?
      Is the HEA data university-specific, I don’t remember?

  5. John smith Says:

    Here is so more statistical data on university admissions

    here Trinity collage claims to have at
    least 15%-17% of the studnet body from none tradition
    collage going back grounds

    Click to access TCD_access_and_equality_policies.pdf

    More data

    Click to access eurostudent_final.pdf

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