Editorial 318: Bristol needs to tackle its culture of privilege


The news in the last few weeks has been full of the failings of UK universities to create a diverse community and attract a range of educational backgrounds.

The BBC led with the headline ‘Oxbridge uncovered: More elitist than we thought,’ revealing that, although 30 per cent of people nationally are in the top two social income groups, students with parents in these top jobs took up 81 per cent of Oxbridge places in 2015. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham who initially released the figures following Freedom of Information requests, commented that ‘access failings [are] creating social apartheid.’

This month, Epigram revealed the unequal distribution of private and state school students across Bristol’s halls of residence. Despite the fact 61 per cent of Bristol University students in 2016/17 came from state schools (according to the ISC, nationally only 7 per cent of students go to independent school), Stoke Bishop took disproportionately privately educated students. Sixty-six per cent of Hiatt Baker’s residents went to private school, while Favell House in the city centre only comprised of 8 per cent of private students, figures that have remained fairly constant over the past 5 years. Read the full story on page 5.

While perhaps these stories are not surprising, when you take a step back it is actually quite astonishing how this type of story is still news.

Positive steps have been taken- Bristol offers contextual offers to those from poor-achieving schools, the University of Bristol bursary and the Bristol Scholars programme and both Oxford and Cambridge are spending £5 million a year on attracting a social mix.

But more needs to be done. The experience of state-school students needs to be acknowledged, an experience that is often drastically different from a private education. There is a broad spectrum of reasons why state school students may not apply to top Russell Group universities such as Bristol or once accepted, the stereotypically private school halls.

Money, perhaps the most obvious, is just one - most Stoke Bishop halls are simply unaffordable for many (a single room in Wills is £7899), and even when out of halls, Bristol is an expensive city to rent in. A significant number of Bristol students pay upwards of £110 a week for rent and bills, when I know people in other university cities who pay a fraction of this - is it really a mystery that the university succeeds in attracting a significant community of private school students?

An Epigram poll revealed that 83 per cent of respondents thinks Bristol has a ‘culture of privilege’ that needs tackling. This reveals a divide between the experiences of private and state school students, a divide that needs to be acknowledged in order for it to be addressed. Perhaps the NUS have the right idea in commissioning their Poverty Commission to investigate the experiences of lower income students.

Confidence is another big barrier in affecting whether state school students apply to Russell group universities; the knowledge that you will be in seminars and lectures with students with an education seemingly so much better than yours is a significant worry - one that I know myself and friends faced when deciding whether or not to apply to stereotypically ‘middle class’ universities. More needs to be done to prevent those who may be put off applying to a top Russell Group university from slipping through the net, encouraging them to consider top universities like Bristol and Oxbridge.

I am not trying to encourage a divide here - the goal should be to unite rather than divide students, to dispose of the stereotypes surrounding both state school and private school students. After all, education doesn’t define people - where you went to school shouldn’t determine your friendship group, the university you decide to go to or even the accommodation you decide to apply for. We need to create an equal playing field and this can only happen through making university economically accessible for all and dispelling dangerous stereotypes.

It is not about dumbing down universities. It is about recognising talent from a variety of sources and creating more of social mix that will benefit everyone. Private schools should not have a monopoly on success - all students should have equal opportunities.

Originally published in Epigram 318.

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Alex Boulton

Editor in Chief 2017-18, Online Style Editor 2016-17. History student.