Downing Street Credit - Nick Kane

It’s not what you know but who you know : how class can dictate opportunities

By Ben Short

The policies of successive governments have upheld class-based inequalities in the education system

You’re in a tutorial on a Monday morning, knowing you have classes until 3pm, followed by a 4pm shift at work which will take you well into the night. Nothing beats you down more than hearing a couple of students across the room discussing their time at private school, and their work experience lined up in the City. As a political science student, opportunities beyond university – whether that’s on Holyrood or Westminister – still appear elusive and rooted in class-based partisanship.

Members of the Scottish Parliament are 5 times more likely to be privately educated than the average Scot, while in 2019 it was found that 39% of cabinet members in the Westminster government had attended private schools. Indeed, a report from Sutton Trust and The Social Mobility Commission describes the existence of a conveyor belt effect, firstly from independent schools into top universities, and from there into top jobs in politics, media, business, and the judiciary. This applies to a tiny substratum of the population – the measly 7% who are privately educated.

Disproportionate representation of the middle and upper classes becomes even more prevalent in journalism, with the aforementioned report finding 44% of columnists went to fee-paying schools, within which 33% also went to Oxbridge. Behind these statistics, are further issues and practices which perpetuate disparities.

Firstly, unpaid internships act as a class filter. A survey of 2,794 people,aged 18-24 by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2012 found that 10% of those in the lower to upper middle classes undertook unpaid work, while only 3% of those from working class backgrounds did so. A sobering 73% of those surveyed believed that these internships are a prerequisite to enter the media industry, and 63% view politics in the same light. 

Yet it’s not just finances which reserve positions of power for students who can delve into the bank of mum and dad. It is clear that who you know is more important than what you know. In the 2015 Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission, it was found that lower achieving but wealthy students were a staggering 35% more likely to find themselves in top wage brackets compared with their higher attaining but working class counterparts. This phenomenon often happens by virtue of middle and upper class parents using their social networks and capital to source postgraduate opportunities and/or unpaid internships. 

Can you really compete against those who don’t need to work to support themselves through university, and are then able to succeed financially regardless of their academic record? Does a first really mean anything when people have more social capital in their pinkie than your whole family? And is there any hope of change, given that the political establishment still thrives on its old boys network? 

The Scottish government’s decision to scrap tuition fees back in 2000 represented a progressive move to shatter the class ceiling for working-class students. Indeed, as a Scottish student, this is a policy that I benefit from. However, last year, the think tank and charity Reform Scotland found that the number of Scottish students being rejected from Scottish universities has doubled over the last 15 years. 55% of Scottish applicants were offered places in 2020, compared with 74% of students applying from England. 

This indicates that Scottish universities are becoming far more reliant on admitting fee-paying students – and especially fee-paying international students – as a means to subsidise places for Scottish students. News this summer of the Scottish Government’s U-turn on the additional £46 million provided for universities makes clear that this issue of capping intakes of Scottish students will persist. Nonetheless, there lie limitations in devolved powers, where you can only really play the cards you’re dealt. (This is tough when much of your finances derive from the Tories in Westminster.)

My hard-left instincts yearn for a Finnish-style education system, which is fully comprehensive. This was born out of a realisation in the 70s that their existing two-tier school system not only reproduced intergenerational inequalities, but also weakened the social fabric of the nation. Once it was abolished, Finland reaped the rewards, establishing a more competitive economy, more heavily determined by meritocracy, rather than class partisanship. 

The current Conservative government in Westminster, and those preceding it, have shown no interest in merging the private sector with the public. This would infringe not only on their philosophy of individual freedom (whereby people should be able to choose between state or private provision), but on their voters’ interests. While ‘old Labour’ vowed in the 60s and 70s to end private provision altogether, Keir Starmer has taken a softer, somewhat progressive approach by vowing to remove private schools’ charitable status. Sadly, this is undermined by his failure to stick to his promise to abolish university fees.

Radical reform in education policy – following on from what was proposed by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – starts with abolishing tuition fees. Taxes on the private sector should enable working class students from south of the border to attend university without being saddled with debt. The playing field should also be levelled by increasing University funds for devolved governments, which would hopefully remove the unofficial cap on free places. Properly funding all state schools would also begin to counter disparities in educational attainment. Otherwise, the class poles will continue to repel further and further apart, with working-class students still left behind, and their well-off counterparts racing ahead as a result of nepotism, all under the guise of a system that supposedly promotes meritocracy and hard work.


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