Do cash incentives for deferral put students from lower income households at a disadvantage?
The statement “students have had a rough year” feels like an understatement. At every level of education, from highschool to university, the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic has posed a series of questions about how we operate our educational system. From online exams, to enforced distance learning, to scandals over how exam results were assigned, the traditional norms of our education system have been challenged. It’s on this backdrop that universities have started to offer cash incentives for students to defer a year or take a place at another academic institution. However, I don’t believe that this course of action is in the best interest of the students.
Initially, this may appear to be the reasonable and principled thing to do; last year saw record numbers of Higher and A-Level attainment and as a result more students have been applying to university courses. However, the decision to offer money in exchange for a student deferring for a year is a classist approach to higher education applications. It not only infringes on the autonomy of lower income students but also undermines the fundamental principle that academia should be equally available for everybody and that universities should be nothing but an arbitrator of academic talent.
“It not only infringes on the autonomy of lower income students but also undermines the fundamental principle that academia should be equally available for everybody…”
The practice of cash incentives has a disproportionate sway on students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. University is holistically expensive – this is something we can’t deny. It’s not just books and academic materials, but joining student societies, traveling and enjoying a vibrant social life are all part of appreciating what university can offer. Even in past years financial circumstances already influenced student life, and the economic strain of the pandemic has only worsened the already precarious situation for students. With this established, a university offering a cash incentive to defer for a year may be an offer that some students cannot afford to refuse, while others who are more financially secure can accept their position at university without worry. This is intuitively unfair.
The action of cash incentives produces a two-tier system among students. Those who can afford it get to go to university when they choose. Those who can’t afford it are instead tempted to give away their spot to someone who was born into a more privileged household. Is this really holding up the University’s promise of “promoting equality in all its activities and [aiming] to provide a work, learning, research and teaching environment free from discrimination and unfair treatment”? It’s not.
Unlike the first impressions of cash incentives, the reality is divisive and classist. Cash incentives for deferral show the unequal economic reality that studying at university can be; being academically capable and determined might not be enough if you can’t afford to study at university. The funds being offered to students should be put to a better use, such as improving access for students from lower income households. On principle, universities should welcome inquisitive minds no matter their financial status, not paying them to go away.