Unhealthy E numbers

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
High-status university courses such as medicine have the worst record when it comes to attracting students from poorer backgrounds, writes Alistair Ross

Just how class-biased is our higher-education system?

Eighty per cent of young people from socio-economic groups A and B now go on to higher education. Although they account for only 17 per cent of the population, they take 60 per cent of places. Conversely, the 62 per cent of the population who come from groups C2, D and E fill less than a quarter of the places. Less than one in five of them goes to university.

These figures, supplied by education minister Malcolm Wicks in reply to a recent parliamentary question, show a well-known bias, which runs totally against the Government's professed objective of a socially-inclusive society.

Less well known is the way that recruitment to particular subject areas is affected by class. Nearly 79 per cent of medical students are from socio-economic groups A and B. Group A is just 3 per cent of the population, but produces more than 40 per cent of medics. Eighty per cent of veterinary students are from groups A and B, but only 2.6 per cent from D and E. Nursing, education and accountancy attract fewer A and B students, and more C2 and D students.

This is he social reproduction of society at work: professions held in lower esteem, such as nursing and teaching, attract relatively more students from less privileged backgrounds.

So are medicine admissions tutors the most biased ? An analysis of applications shows the truth is more complex. All subjects accept a higher proportion of A students' applications and lower proportion of E students'. Veterinary science is most biased.

But, though nursing attracts a broader selection of students than medicine, in fact it discriminates more in favour of A students and much more against E students.

Education has a tendency to discount students from group E.

What does all this mean? First the HE system is helping to bar the less privileged from better-paid occupations.

Second, students' own choices of subject tend to perpetuate social divisions: students from "high-class" backgrounds go for courses that lead to "high-class" jobs.

And third, the selection process for subjects can show great variations in bias. Accountancy does not discriminate against students from class E, while education, nursing and veterinary science do.

Alistair Ross is professor of education at the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, University of North London

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