How the coronavirus crisis could keep working class kids locked out of top unis

Miriam caught coronavirus at the care home she’s working in to help fund her studies

Miriam has an offer to start studying medicine at Imperial in September. She got a full-time job in a care home to save up and make sure she’d be able to afford the move from Huddersfield to London.

When a coronavirus outbreak struck that care home, Miriam caught the virus. She’s now self-isolating, unable to work.

Like many other year 13s about to go to uni, Miriam has worked hard to get a place against the odds. Now she’s stuck in her bedroom, luckily without the worst COVID-19 symptoms, wondering if her hard work will be undone.

The UK’s top universities are still abnormally posh places, despite warm words and some progress in recent years. Privileged students are 10 times more likely to get into a top uni. Students from the places and schools who don’t typically send kids to those unis, frankly, have to work a lot harder when faced with those odds.

Year 13s, current students and experts all told The Tab of their worries that coronavirus will make existing barriers worse, and even throw up new ones. With unis under pressure, the Office for Students, the uni regulator, confirmed to The Tab that unis will be able to miss this year’s targets on getting students from diverse backgrounds in, and to divert money from these areas to deal with more immediate concerns.

What all this means, in reality, is that talented, hard-working, ambitious students could miss out on a place at uni.

Miriam, working in the care home

Miriam Syed falls into that category. Her offer from Imperial is conditional, and the system of predicted grades works – in part – on how well your school performs compared to the average. She’s predicted three A*s, but says “ I don’t know if I’ll get those”.

Without extra money to support herself at uni, Miriam would struggle to get by. “Money’s a massive worry for me,” she says. “The one thing that put me off London was that I’m not sure if I could afford it.” However, the prospect of working alongside a medicine degree was unrealistic, so she got a job working full-time in a local care home to save up.

It was great practice for her medicine degree. “I really enjoyed caring for people,” says Miriam, who relished the opportunity to work on her bedside manner. Since contracting coronavirus at work, however, she’s self-isolating but showing no severe symptoms. When we speak, she has to take a small break to check her temperature.

For others, bar work, retail work, and all the other normal jobs you get to make rent if your parents aren’t helping you are looking increasingly unlikely in the Autumn.

Just before she applied for uni, Miriam went to a summer school at Cambridge for students from low-income backgrounds. “There’s an assumption that everyone’s from a private school, they’re really posh and all have private tutors. You’re just from a village in Huddersfield,” she said. “After I went back home, I could picture myself there, because I’d actually been there.”

This year, those same summer schools have been replaced with online versions. Tom Levinson, Cambridge’s Head of Widening Participation, told The Tab in an interview this week that almost twice as many students as expected have signed up.

For Miriam, that still misses out what gave her the boost to apply for the biggest unis. “A big part of what gave me that confidence was meeting other people, making friends with other people who are in the same situation as you”.

Miriam Syed

Once you’re at a top uni, it can be difficult to fit in and shake the feeling that it’s not a place for you. At Bristol and Durham, students founded the 93 per cent club. It’s named for the proportion of pupils who attend state schools nationally, and helps students fit in at universities where that 93 per cent is underrepresented.

Sophie Hudson is going into her final year studying law at Bristol. During her A Levels she lived on a farm in mid Wales with a single parent, and went to a college where students do 10 per cent worse than the Welsh average. She was the only person in her year to get an interview at Oxford.

“If you’re put in a hall with loads of people who went to Eton and you went to a state school, it can be quite hard to fit in, especially if you’ve got no other people to interact with,” she tells me. Lectures, nights out, and societies like the 93 per cent club helped her find like-minded people. Those people helped her to feel like she actually belonged at a university where entire halls carry reputations for being havens for posh kids from private schools.

“With students starting in September, I think it’s quite tough because I imagine bars will be closed and lectures are probably going to go online.”

Sophie Hudson

These experiences aren’t just one-offs. They play out in the statistics. Working class uni applicants are more likely to have changed their mind about their uni plans already, according to research by social mobility charity The Sutton Trust. Those same applicants are also more worried about coronavirus stopping them getting into their first choice uni.

Becky Montacute, who co-authored that report, says there’s a “very real concern” that some students from disadvantaged backgrounds will miss out on uni.

“We’re quite concerned about the possibility that working class students tend to stay closer to home anyway, and more likely to live at home with their parents,” Montacute adds. Restricted choices mean students from low-income backgrounds have less room for manoeuvre.

“Better off students are going to be more likely to take time away if they don’t get what they hoped for, and maybe retake their exams, take a year out,” says Montacute, paths which are less open for poorer students.

Martha Valentine is also from Huddersfield – she describes her college as the “rival” to Miriam’s. She has an unconditional offer to start at Falmouth and says she wouldn’t defer out of fear she wouldn’t get a place again next year.

“I’m worried that I’d just burn myself out if I had to do it all again after working for these exams that just didn’t happen,” she says.

Although the circumstances are tough, there are opportunities for universities to help students who might struggle to get into uni. “If a student from a WP [widening participation] background has just missed their offer, we’d really like to see them being given extra consideration and perhaps allowed to pick up that place anyway,” says Montacute.

In fact, there may even be some positives. If international students stay away, it might free up some space. “There’s potential for some students to be able to go to universities where there would have been fewer spaces available previously,” says Montacute.

Universities are required to spend a certain amount of money on widening participation and to hit targets on fixing the underrepresentation of students from low-income backgrounds. However, the Office for Students, which makes sure unis are meeting these targets and closing the gap, will allow universities to miss those targets for this year. Spending previously going towards programmes like those which helped Miriam can now be moved into hardship funds and mental health services.

“We will assess how they sought to meet their commitments, but in doing so will take into account the circumstances and assess whether each university has made reasonable decisions that take into account the needs of students, especially students from underrepresented groups,” an OfS spokesperson told The Tab. Universities will still be held to their longer-term five year plans.

Behind that is an acknowledgement that unis are trying their best and have more immediate concerns to attend to.

Joe Seddon

“There’s been incredible progress when it comes to access to top universities over the past couple of years, We run a real risk in this current situation that all that progress could be dramatically reversed because of this horrible virus,” says Oxford grad Joe Seddon. Two years ago, he founded Access Oxbridge, an online mentoring company which has since helped over 100 students from low-income backgrounds to get into Oxbridge.

Students he works with are “really worried that this completely unforeseen event of the virus is going to completely disrupt all that great work they’ve done and stop them getting to the university that they deserve.”

Joe thinks universities can learn and try and reach students in different ways. He credits Access Oxbridge’s success with being able to reach people on social media, and mentoring them in ways that work on mobile phones. Under lockdown, these tactics seem prescient.

“There’s been lots of discussion about a digital divide, which exists within the UK,” he says. “Students from low income backgrounds don’t have as good access to things like laptops and desktop computers, or good working environments at home. What students do have across the socio-economic spectrum is access to mobile phones.”

As universities work things out and improvise solutions, the impact won’t be known for some time, when the new cohort is enrolled and the stats produced.

In the meantime, Miriam – who went to the summer schools, took the full time job, and worked hard for years to get on her dream course – is left in limbo: “It’s really out of your control”.

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