Thoughts on inequalities in access to education

From time to time I invite one of my London Higher colleagues to write a guest commentary for my blog. Thanks to Tuba Mazhari for putting the following, very thought-provoking, piece together!

It hasn’t been very long since I’ve been working in widening participation to HE, but I’d be lying if I said that inequalities in access to education hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind for a very long time. Since completing my PhD in Epidemiology and Public Health, and an MSc in Social Epidemiology, I am all too aware of access to education as a mediator of the inverse relationship between socioeconomic position and health. Moreover, and of particular relevance to this discussion, I became aware of the importance of social origins in cultivating attitudes toward education, in affording the opportunity to study beyond school, and employment opportunities post-graduation.

Wealth breeds opportunity. Opportunity breeds opportunity. The odds of success are often determined early on in the life course, even before we are born.

In my personal experience, the most explicit example of inequalities in access to learning came through tutoring young people for the 11 plus examinations. The brightest of my students – all of whom are from areas of low participation in access HE – found themselves struggling with the comprehension element of the exam. In the little time I had (usually a few months before examinations), I worked at lightning pace in an attempt to increase their vocabulary. Was it enough? In most cases, no. It quickly became apparent to me that much of the vocabulary used within these comprehension tasks would likely have been acquired at an early age, to children of well-educated and relatively wealthy parents who could pay for tuition at a much earlier stage of their lives. More affluent children had been prepared for the 11 plus exams, much earlier than their less affluent counterparts. Even among students from the same school, opportunities for educational success were higher among the more advantaged. Outreach activities were aimed at the brightest of students, in low-participation schools, many of whom were born to well-educated parents. Social mobility then is – ironically – hardest among those who need it most if we are going to get anywhere close to an equitable society.

Recently I found myself reminded of the unfortunate fact that the determinants of social mobility are not exclusive to lifetime wealth or education. Gender and ethnicity, alongside disability status and whether a child has been in care, or is themselves a carer are all important factors. I knew this, of course, but the most recent reminder – that Muslim women are least likely to achieve social mobility as a result of barriers from their gender, ethnicity and religion -was particularly painful.

My first reaction was a selfish one: I wondered what this meant for my own career opportunities. I’m a Muslim woman, of Pakistani heritage, from East London. Would I face discrimination at the recruitment stage? For promotion? Would I even know if I had been discriminated against? My second reaction was less selfish – I wondered how this news would be perceived by young Muslim girls, at the outset of their educational careers. Clearly, higher education is at the forefront of their minds. Only earlier this year, I’d seen a report that stated Muslim women had outperformed their male counterparts, in terms of qualifications.

Would the triple penalty of being Muslim, female and as part of an ethnic minority put them off applying to higher education? Would they fear that potential work place discrimination would prevent their qualifications from translating in to jobs? Would this be worse for visibly Muslim girls who wore the hijab? The hijab is a popular topic in the media and not usually in a favourable light. Does the representation of Muslim women – as oppressed or unwilling to integrate, in the media mean that young Muslim women aren’t exposed to role models who face the same challenges that they do? I find myself wondering how, subconsciously, this affects their choice of degree and how far they choose to study. Should outreach activities take a bottom up approach guided by students in different racial or religious groups? How much can community leaders help? Or perhaps they didn’t have any of these fears? Perhaps they had a whole other set of fears, if any, around higher education? What are the similarities and differences in concerns (around HE) experienced by young people?

I have many questions that do not have straightforward answers.

What has become apparent, from the few focus groups I’ve conducted in my current role, is that the fears, experiences, and concerns that young people vary hugely by gender, ethnicity and, in fact, individuals. For me, this experience has really hammered home that any attempt at successfully engaging young people in higher education will require researchers and practitioners in the widening participation sector, HEIs, teachers and parents to actively listen to young people.

And that is what I intend to do.

Stay tuned.