The class divide in university applications and exams reflects the insidious North-South divide

By James Lewis

For the second consecutive year, the number of university applications has dropped. The number of applications from UK students has decreased by 2.6% when compared to last year’s figures, with 12,420 fewer applicants. Reasons suggested for the decline varies from rising student debts to the perceived devaluation of university degrees, but it is clear that class divide is playing a destabilising role in student applications.

London is, and for a very long time has been, the primary economic city for the United Kingdom and is consistently in the top 10 cities worldwide for GDP. Additionally, the GDP for London is expected to grow by 2.2% per year until 2020, whereas the North-East of England is predicted to decrease to less than 1% growth, and the North-West expecting 1.5-2% growth.

The North-South split is not a myth. It is here. It is damaging. It is widening.

Transport investment per person is 12 times higher in London than in Yorkshire, people in the north are 20% more likely than their southern counterparts to die early, 96% of employment growth in the UK in 2013 was in London and the southern counties and the median income between the South-East of England has risen to 25% above that of the West Midlands, the UK’s poorest region.

Since former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s speech in 1962 explaining the need to rebalance investment and focus on decreasing what he described as “a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south”, the percentage of people living in the north has declined from 30% of the population to 25%.

The class divide between the north and south is not just evident in investment, wage, and healthcare. Education is also being impacted negatively. Universities continue to put a focus on the need for A-Level qualifications as the primary method of acceptance into a university. This is generating an unfair advantage for applicants from the south of England, where university-applicant age students are far more likely than their northern counterparts to apply with solely A-Levels. A study highlighted than white working-class applicants have both vocational and A-Level qualifications, and 35% of white-working class applicants from the North East of England are applying with only vocational qualifications.

[Image credit: Emma Jane Hogbin Westby on Flickr]
Whilst this highlights the perceived snobbery of universities in devaluing vocational qualifications in favour of A-Levels which are more likely to be found in southern applicants, it also brings to light to an imbalance of A-Level students in terms of race and ethnicity, as students from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely than white British students to apply to university with vocational qualifications.

Elitism and class divide in getting into university is unlikely to change in the near future as Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle showed a severe lack of representation of the general public. The Prime Minister’s cabinet is five times more likely than the general public to have received a private education, and 48% of Mrs May’s ministers were educated at either Cambridge or Oxford.

The class divide in our nation is obvious and much has to be done to overcome this. Universities can help to rebalance this injustice by adapting their acceptance procedures to more accurately reflect the applicants, and this is as simple as accepting non-A-Level qualifications and making it clearer to those applying that various exam boards and qualifications are accepted when applying.

This will not help to overcome the divide overnight but, as Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”, and having more educated students from poorer backgrounds can only help to stabilise the economic and social divide in the UK.

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The class divide in university applications and exams reflects the insidious North-South divide