Barriers in University Classes

A recurring line of argument from the centre and centre-right in Scotland (and even from some on the left) is that, somehow, the SNP’s policy of free higher education, and other Universalism based policy, is in some way a “middle class bribe”. This is ostensibly based on the the assertion that the demographics of individuals who are actually in University means that it only really benefits them.

It should come as a surprise to nobody that higher education is still a middle-class dominated environment. Working class students are under-represented at University level, and there are a diverse range of socioeconomic reasons for this — but the fact there are no tuition fees is, obviously, not one of them.

There are layers of sneering inferences that can be drawn from the assertion that, somehow, Government funded higher education is of benefit only to the middle classes. Firstly, that working class students do not also benefit from being able to attend University without having to pay fees. Secondly, it underhandedly suggests that working class students are not equally capable of attending University compared to middle-class students.

There is also the underhanded suggestion that working class people only go to college but middle class people go to University. This is insulting both to colleges and to working class students. It suggests that somehow college is less valuable than University; that its attendees are less intelligent than University students, and that it is all that working class students are capable of. To put it bluntly- they think we’re too stupid for Uni and are only able to go to college at best, because, after all, only stupid people go to college, right?

I, and many of my peers, simply couldn’t afford to go to Uni without state and familial assistance. Despite a generous funding scheme from the Scottish Government through SAAS, there’s a limit to how much money the Scottish Government can actually dedicate to fund living costs under the devolved settlement, and how much good this will do for students. The Scottish Government has, where it can, increased the amount of money working class students have got to actually live on while they are doing their degree, but it isn’t a viable solution to keep pouring money down what is essentially a bath without a plug in it.

This is another area where devolution or an increase of the minimum wage would directly benefit thousands of working class people. If Holyrood had the power to set a living wage they could make life immeasurably better for students. For instance, despite having to take a gap year to fundraise for University, I still found myself short after the initial upfront costs associated with renting in Edinburgh, despite working throughout the year before. What little savings I had were wiped out within a week of starting at University because Halls demanded I paid up front for the semester’s accommodation.

In order to have a comfortable standard of living I still had to work in various jobs, of various standards, while at University. At one point I was at University in Riccarton, Edinburgh Monday to Friday, commuting back to North Perthshire to work Saturday 12–8, Sunday 10–4, then coming back Sunday evening to do 5 days of Uni again — on top of coursework. As I was in the 18–21 bracket, I was being paid £4.85ph, which meant that I was ultimately making ~£50 a week for 14 hours of work.

Because I was also very good at my job (I was a Kitchen Porter who got thrown about doing various other jobs like waiting), I ended up doing the work of at least two people every shift. It was often the case that, as I was on a zero-hour contract, I would ask for days off that I couldn’t get because they didn’t have the staff to cover me. Adding to this, I also did not receive any external funding from my extended family when I was actually at Uni.

Although my employer could not overtly threaten me over missing shifts to, say, take the weekend off to do coursework, there is always an underhanded inference that “if you don’t work this shift, you’ll pay for it later”. The scales of power are weighted by the employer’s hand and the threat of reduced income. Precarity of income and working conditions traps workers in hostile jobs without overt contractual arrangements- being able to deny shifts is the only threat employers need to keep workers in line.

While many of my friends and peers were off on skiing trips with the Snowsports society or on foreign trips, I was working until 1am on Hogmanay because I literally had to work to eat that month, or working 11 or 12 days in a row in a kitchen so that I could work less during term time. At one point I kept an awful job in a George Street restaurant because I got free food and needed to save money any way I could. When I was in a low-hours month, I cut back on socialising. When I was in a really low-hours month, I cut back on eating.

In short- on top of the stress of studying, being thrown into a social group you may not have a lot in common with, and coming from a working class background with not much money to use on socialising, knowing you’re going to accrue debt due to living costs; University is, to many, simply unattainable regardless of their ability.

If you’re a working class student and you hear the media decrying the value of degrees and the state of the job market, why go through all that? The mocking of degrees as being “worthless” seems to be a distinctly modern phenomenon, and I can’t help but feel it’s because it’s so empowering to those of us from less fortunate backgrounds who suddenly have access to higher education in never before seen numbers.

We’re told as students we need to embrace the “student experience” —to  go out, get drunk, socialise, join societies, go on trips — but if you can’t afford that, where does that leave you? It’s yet another barrier to those who can’t afford it. The “student experience” we’ve created is false and pretends the very real poverty many students experience doesn’t exist, hiding it behind smiling faces from nightclub photoshoots shared on social media.

Working class students who can’t afford to go out every weekend are left feeling ashamed of their lack of disposable income and inability to participate in the “student experience”. In reality this is just an extension of the hidden poverty they and millions of others already face throughout Scotland – having just enough income to exist, but not enough to live. Having food on the table, but praying the fridge won’t break. Living from paycheck to paycheck despite working 40 hours a week.

Add into this the increased likelihood of those from poor backgrounds having an increased tendency to suffer from mental health issues, and it becomes a near insurmountable mountain to scale in progressing from a state comprehensive to having letters at the end of your name.

So how do we get more working class students into higher education? Pay a living wage so if we must work, it makes our lives better; improve public transport so we lose less income getting to and from work and university; tackle the cost of energy and improve the condition of student accommodation so less money is wasted on fuel and electricity bills; make sure students don’t end up in flats with electricity meters which cost drastically than traditional bills; build more social housing to help control the cost of rent for those most vulnerable. Finally, keep it free.

The problem is, the Scottish Government just doesn’t have the power to tackle many of these issues and the local authorities in the most deprived areas have been utterly failed by generations of Labour governance, which is why in the most deprived areas Labour’s poll numbers are flatlining.

The minimum wage is a reserved issue. Welfare is a reserved issue. Energy is a reserved issue. The Scottish Government has made some headway where it can :  increasing living cost funding for students; ensuring working class students aren’t burdened in later life with fee debt with the added effects on their economic power in adult life; building thousands more social houses than Labour achieved (Labour built 6 in all their years in power at Holyrood).

If we want more working class students in University, we need to address the issues they face growing up and stop erecting barriers. Adopting a living wage instead of a minimum wage would be a simple but excellent way to start. Powers over work relations, or simply repealing Thatcherite trade union laws, could also help us to empower our trade unions to win better deals for workers and improve collective bargaining in the medium term which would ensure better conditions for workers who aren’t unionised — especially groups like students and those on zero hour contracts. Rent controls are also an area that needs serious consideration.

Children that go to school hungry because their parents can’t afford to feed them; students that have to work too many hours on the side because their wages are insufficient; children growing up unhappy and stressed because of poverty at home: these will affect the life chances of children throughout the United Kingdom, but they are issues about which the Scottish Government has its hands tied behind its back addressing without powers over welfare, trade union relations, and the minimum wage.

Tackle these, and you won’t just improve the lives of students and make higher education more accessible, you’ll improve the lives of millions of other people as well.