In today’s Guardian there is a very simple and cute opinion piece that summarizes very nicely the reasons that poor children don’t go to uni. Coming from a poor background myself, I feel I have some insight into the social and cultural factors that bear down on children from poor families to stop them from going to university, and I think I can strongly agree with this article. For example, the author (Peter Wilby) states:

What stops disadvantaged young people getting into Oxford – which still draws more than 40% of its students from fee-charging schools – is a combination of the high formal entry requirements, the need to display cultural capital and social poise during college interviews, and a sense that the university is an elite club that they can never belong to.

Speaking of the (admirable) philanthropic efforts of a hedge fund billionaire from a poor part of Wales, Wilby adds:

Most of the youth of Ely and Splott – and of all other poor areas in England and Wales – are barred from Oxford long before they reach 18 and, given what we now know about the effects of early poverty on educational achievement, from as early as the age of three.

and in these two very short and simple comments is the central explanation for poor childrens’ under-achievement at the end of high school, especially in the generations who matured in the ’80s and ’90s: university entrance is determined as much by culture as by simple financial barriers. I remember reading an opinion piece about poetry a while back now, in which the writer described his interview for admission to Cambridge: he was expected to recite poetry from memory and, being from a poor school, he had no education in such esoterica. The examiner didn’t even let him finish, but just laughed and kicked him out. I think a few years ago the entrance interviews for Oxford and Cambridge were abolished, and that’s exactly why: they’re exercises in proving cultural capital, not genuine assessment tools, especially in a country where accent identifies class. How does a 17 year old hide their class background in an interview with a professor where they have to recite Homer?

Where culture does not come into play, one’s family’s economic situation often does. Poor kids go to schools in poor areas, where teachers are bad and resources limited; by high school they are academically weak and in societies where class discrimination is an unspoken rule (like the UK), their teachers give up on their higher education prospects. I was lucky in this regard: I moved to Australia at 13, and even though at age 16 I didn’t know what university was, my career advisor recognized my maths talent and advised me to seek entrance. I think in many schools in the UK a similarly-placed advisor would simply assume that uni was for someone else, and not bother telling me about the world of academic endeavour. Again, this is culture – unless one is lucky enough to have teachers who believe that the little shits they deal with daily deserve to cross class boundaries, one will get a teacher who has been ground under by the anti-intellectual culture of working class Britain, and will be recommended only a limited range of career options. In Australia the situation was very different when I went to school, and so I discovered at age 16 that being a scientist was not just something that the idle rich did back in the 19th century.

With these cultural and economic barriers in mind, Wilby has some very entertaining suggestions to the aforementioned philanphropist as to how to achieve greater equality in education outcomes. The first is cute:

if Moritz wishes to remove barriers to improvement among the disadvantaged, he would do better to launch a fund for schools in Ely and Splott, the poorest localities of his native Cardiff, or, better still, take a helicopter and drop £75m in £10 notes over those areas

and the second is well beyond the tolerance of British society, I think:

Oxford could transform the composition of its student body simply by writing to every comprehensive in the country’s 100 most deprived areas and guaranteeing a place to the highest performing pupil, even if he or she manages only three B grades. Instead, it hides behind the convenient myth, for which there is no evidence whatever, that applicants are put off by “debt”.

This is a variant of what (I am told) China’s top university does: it reserves 50 places for each of China’s provinces, and assigns them to the top 50 students who apply. This doesn’t eliminate inequality, but it guarantees that the university takes the top talent from all areas of the country, even if the top talent from those areas is second rate compared to the centre. I’ve had the pleasure of supervising a Master’s student from one of those provinces, and I think I can safely say that the policy hasn’t harmed China’s academic achievements. Perhaps Oxford should try it …

Wilby finishes with a stirring defence of the attitudes of Britain’s poor:

True, poor families tend to be debt-averse, mainly because the credit available to them carries eye-watering interest rates. But they know, as well as anyone else, a gift horse when they see one. A university course does not involve debt as conventionally defined, merely an obligation to repay fees, in very easy instalments, if the graduate’s subsequent annual income rises above £21,000, which is roughly the current level of median earnings among the working population. It is a graduate tax in all but name. To suggest that the poor can’t understand that is not only wrong, but patronising.

This is a nice defence of the autonomy and agency of poor people, and to a great extent I think it’s probably true, but I would add one disagreement: it’s well established that a lot of poor people went into shocking debt to buy a home with dubious prospects during the housing boom. So it’s not the case that poor people are “debt-averse” in the modern world: they are happy to go into debt if they think it will profit them. I think the problem is that people from poor communities don’t in general (at least historically, when I was a kid) see a university education for the guaranteed income-raiser that it is, but see it as some kind of hobby for toffs who don’t need a guaranteed income. I think Wilby is right in observing that, if poor people understood the value of university education the same way that they understood the importance of the “property ladder” they would certainly assess low income student loans in the way that he says; and the evidence as presented by Wilby certainly suggests that the minority of people from poor families who do understand this are not deterred by Britain’s recent huge increase in fees.

What this means is that the best way to get equality in outcomes at the university level is not necessarily to target low fees, but to improve education in primary and secondary schools. Obviously everyone wants someone else to subsidize their education, but when push comes to shove any system that can defer the capital outlay should, in theory, get the poor kids coming to uni in droves. That years of deferred fees and student loans haven’t achieved such a thing suggests that there are significant economic and cultural barriers to education participation that kick in long before anyone from a poor background gets near signing up for a 9000 pound loan. And well-meaning folk who wish to reduce that inequality need to look at the long game: attack primary school and secondary school disadvantage, and cultural resistance to education, and provided there is some kind of fee deferment process, don’t worry so much about the charge for university itself.