Posted tagged ‘social disadvantage’

Away from home

March 5, 2018

Some 44 years ago I became an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin. On my first day as a student, I took a guided tour of the institution organised by the Student Representative Council (as it was then called).

I started chatting with two other students. One of them was self-assured, came from a solid middle class background, and told me he had taken his first major decision as a student: he would join the Geography Society (which had developed a reputation for field trips that involved many things apart from geography). The other was a young woman from a working class area of Dublin, who had come to TCD despite her parents’ misgivings about its Protestant history; she would live at home so that, she told me, her parents could ‘keep an eye on her’.

I don’t remember the names of either student (if indeed we exchanged names at all), but I sometimes wonder whether and how university life changed them. I fear a little that it may not have totally evened out the social gap between them. Or maybe it did, but the chances of that would have been greater if the second of the two managed to move out of the parental home at some point during her studies.

It is almost a cliché to say that the university experience should be more than just one of studying. It has a vital social dimension, which is about much more than having fun (though that, too, is good). That social dimension can be harnessed most effectively when students move away from their parental home and mix with other students outside of formal teaching and learning. One website offers 18 reasons (a good few of them tongue-in-cheek) why living away from home during university studies is good.

Now in a recent study the Sutton Trust has found that a majority of British students live at or near their homes, but that this choice is often driven by social class, with students from state schools significantly more likely to choose to stay at home than those who have been privately educated. These patterns are also reinforced by regional considerations, with students from less prosperous regions making choices that keep them there during their studies.

If this is a problem helping to sustain social inequality, it may not be easy to find a quick solution, as the forces sustaining this pattern are financial, structural and cultural. But it is important that higher education is a social leveller and does not help to perpetuate disadvantage. The Sutton Trust makes a number of recommendations, including the provision of targeted funding and a greater effort by universities to structure learning in a way that will help students living at home to achieve greater independence. These recommendations should be taken seriously by government and higher education institutions and should lead to appropriate action.

Young visitors

April 12, 2009

Right now, over this extended Easter weekend, there’s not a huge amount going on in my university. I live on the campus, and as I walked across it earlier today it was eerily quiet, as staff and students are taking a break. But then as I turned a corner I ran into a little group of boys, mostly in the age group of 8 to 12 I think. I won’t say what they were doing, except maybe to point out that they weren’t up to much good. I walked up to them, intending to suggest that they move on. However, one of them asked me what I did here, and I so I humoured them and told them a little about the university and my role in it. I explained the teaching that we did, and some of the research – and the idea that people worked here who might be contributing to the eradication of some diseases or writing computer programs seemed to intrigue them.

It became quite a lively discussion, and from this it emerged that this group of young people had two key questions for us: they did not describe them this way, but the two questions were in essence about entrepreneurship and ethics. They wanted to know whether our programmes of study would make it easier for graduates to start businesses and become wealthy; and what would happen if our research was ‘dangerous’ or ‘bad’. In fact, the visitors were asking the questions that others are also asking, about the role of universities in supporting economic effort and about combining our work with a strong assessment of the ethical dimension of what we do.

It was however extraordinary that, while these young people were in possession of intelligent insights into university issues, not one of them (when I asked) thought they would ever have the opportunity to study in one. They all came from a disadvantaged area not far from the university, and while they were happy to mess around on the campus now, they did not believe there was any prospect for them that would allow them to become students here (or in any other higher education institution) later.

We are still failing the young people from these backgrounds. Not only have we as a society not provided the resources to make a university education a realistic prospect for them, we haven’t even managed to make them feel that they should at least aim for this outcome. Yet here was a group of young people who, from their questions and comments, immediately convinced me that they would have every chance of excelling here. I chatted with them for another while, and told them this was their university as well as mine, and gave them some suggestions as to how they could get the support needed to come here one day as students. I don’t know if it will happen.

Ireland is, as we know, standing on the edge of the economic precipice. In some ways I think that if we fall over the edge it will not just be because of our over-spending, or falling productivity, or inadequate revenue (bad though all these are): it will also be our reluctance to ensure that everyone has a decent opportunity to get a good education and a genuine stake in whatever prosperity we may yet recover. Under the guise of equality in education we have in fact grossly neglected some of the most disadvantaged in a system that is still heavily geared to the tastes of the middle classes. Unless we harness the creative potential of all the population we are in peril.