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Tackling social inequality and under representation in Universities

Tackling social inequality and under representation in Universities

This article discusses a report by The Educating All Programme run by a youth charity based in Manchester, called Reclaim who provide young people with a noticeable platform. The Educating All programme is student-led and provides support to academic institutions to promote the success of working class students. A recent report by recent working-class graduates from the programme looks at the barriers working-class students face at higher education institutes (HEI).

The aim of the report was to understand the measures universities have in place to address barriers and to identify what’s best practise for social mobility within higher education for working class individuals. Research within the report suggests that lower-socio-economic individuals are less successful than high-socio-economic individuals within university. There appears to be some progress made in tackling social inequality and under representation in HE, however the significant need for continuity to find ways to challenge barriers and develop understanding for students and staff remains.

Research from students, graduates and staff of lower-socio-economic background suggested that working class students lack a sense of belonging and entitlement to their place at university and feel alienated in the environment. I believe the best way for Universities to tackle this issue of alienation and isolation is through society. Universities should make more effort to connect with their nearby societies, and expanding their horizons. They should be willing to train staff on issues of alienation and help students feel comfortable and invited within the academic space, this can be done through societies that represent the underrepresented. Similarly, a diverse curriculum would lessen the feeling of alienation, for example, within a subject like English Literature, modules on the working class or even reading lists that have a diverse range of authors from difference socio-economic backgrounds may help students connect with what they are learning. The idea of a Working-Class Diversity Officer would encourage and motivate working class individuals, they would also feel represented within higher education or at least their university. An Alumni mentoring scheme would be beneficial as it would help the working class in terms of social mobility through networking and gaining knowledge outside of the academic.

The research from the report also suggests that these low-socio-economic background individuals felt like there was a lack of mental health support for these students and that there needs to be an awareness and understanding about this issue. I believe issues of mental health within a working-class background are often culturally influenced, and therefore a delicate matter. For universities to be able to tackle this issue would require them to properly train staff around the matters of mental health. It would also be beneficial for universities to push the wellbeing and mental health support they do provide through emails, newsletters and even posters. There are many facilities within the Counselling Service here at The University of Manchester that many students do not know about, I myself did not know about the many workshops that Counselling service ran till Wellbeing Week. It could also be beneficial for universities to create a scheme where individuals can discuss their mental health and any issues they are facing anonymously, this may encourage individuals of a working-class background to communicate about the problems they are facing. To empower these working-class students providing a safe place for students and ensuring that they feel comfortable and safe when speaking out is a necessity, it is important to accept that everybody is different and to never undermine an individual’s feelings.

There are many barriers the working-class must overcome, however, I believe the most difficult is the issue of belonging and entitlement to their place at university. This sense of alienation, pressure of finances, expectations of families, of further studies and even the future can be daunting. It is important for the working-class too speak of these issues and for this they need to feel invited and comfortable within the academic hierarchy. I myself, from a working-class background struggled with problems of alienation and belonging in my first year. However, I have learned to accept that I have earned my place at university through my hard work, and this realisation itself has helped greatly with the improvement of my mental health. Overall, I believe the most important way that socio-economic issues can be tackled within universities is through making sure these low-socio-economic feel welcome and invited into the academic hierarchy, in making sure that they are not undermined or treated differently.

Saira Baksh

Studying Fine Art at Manchester School of Art.

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