It never comes as a great surprise when our current Conservative government releases an incentive that places the onus upon the citizen – always viewed through the lens of consumerism – to improve their lot. However, the news that universities’ minister Sam Gymiah believes the best way to ensure support for poorer prospective university students (who may be the first in their family to enter higher education) is via an app, is still somewhat confounding.
Gymiah and his department apparently believe the app will shorten the ‘knowledge gap’ between students who have had prior exposure to what, for example, the ‘Russell Group’ consists of, or the intricacies of how Oxbridge admissions work, especially those who simply do not have these parts of the application process explained to them by either their family or their school. Knowledge of these systems is often so inherent that it might not even strike the mind of a privileged, middle class student that they once had to have it explained to them what ‘PPE’ stands for, or the difference between a BA and an MA; or, that there are those without this kind of access who are therefore placed at an instrumental disadvantage.
Of course, any incentive that helps working class students in a way their networks may not be able to is encouraging. However, there is an audacity to thinking that the development of an app, with no wider infrastructural or systemic change alongside it, thanks to the squeeze of government resources caused by austerity, will benefit these students.
Gymiah believes the app will help these students by comparing the ‘graduate outcomes’ of various university courses. This serves as an insight into the commercialisation of higher education at the hands of various governments, with university education viewed as a means by which to access employment. This will then too invariably be ranked in terms of salary accrued. The app may have the opposite impact than intended, deterring students from poorer backgrounds from degrees deemed financially unviable. This extra level of consideration, whether their degree will be ‘worth’ the cost attached to it, is just not something their more financially cushioned peers have to think about. It is shameful that in Britain your social background serves as an obstacle, prohibiting promising students from taking up courses (particularly in the arts and humanities) because they simply cannot afford to do so.
Fundamentally, progress in ensuring equal access to higher education is, as often pointed out by Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, a simple matter of finance, with prospective students put off by the trebling of university fees, the 2016 scrapping of maintenance grants, the ever rising cost of rent in both halls and student housing, and the cost of living across the UK’s university cities and towns.
An app that ostensibly demonstrates which courses are good value for money skirts around the main issue: the unaffordability of a university degree. A ‘Go-Compare’ style app does nothing more than reveal to students what they already know: that for many of them, their dream course is simply unaffordable without systematic change at the very core of higher education. More help than an app is needed from the government, and also from universities themselves, if they really are serious about tackling the pervasive inequality found within application to higher education.
Image: Sean MacEntree via Flickr