"In each succeeding age, the University will spread the light of learning and knowledge." The transformative power of education has been a principle at the heart of our University since Sir Jesse Boot set out his vision almost a century ago. Yet, it is increasingly a challenge to ensure the benefits of higher education are equally accessible by all.
Words: Faye Haslam (History, 2012)
More students from disadvantaged backgrounds are entering higher education – 1,652 students from a widening participation background joined the University in 2018 – and following in the footsteps of alumni like Natalie Haydon-Yeung (Law, 2012), who overcame adversity to become a successful family law solicitor.
But, there still remain wide gaps in opportunity for disadvantaged students compared to their more advantaged peers. Stark findings by the Social Mobility Commission in 2019 lay bare the fact that social mobility in Britain has stagnated for the last four years.
Analysis by the Office for National Statistics compounds this, highlighting that the better off are nearly 80% more likely to end up in a professional job than those from a working-class background, and that even when people from disadvantaged backgrounds secure a professional job they earn 17% less than their privileged colleagues.
It's a complex, complicated challenge to address, and one higher education cannot solve alone. But universities like Nottingham have an important role to play in providing opportunities for social mobility and working to remove barriers at each stage from primary school children to graduates.
Our University is proud to call Nottingham home. We have deep roots in the city and strong connections with our local communities. But our city has its struggles. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics this year revealed that Nottingham has the UK’s lowest disposable household income per head, at just £12,445, with the city named the UK’s ‘poorest city’ for the fifth time in seven years. Meanwhile,the Youth Opportunity Index has ranked Nottingham as having the worst prospects for children and young people in the country.
“When I was at secondary school in Nottingham, we didn’t really have careers advice,” reflects Natalie, today an Associate Solicitor at Geldards Law Firm’s Derby office. Driven by an ambition to be a lawyer from a young age, it was a summer school at the University that convinced Natalie studying law was possible.
“I knew from about 14 or 15 that I wanted to be a lawyer but I didn’t know what it entailed or where to start," she explains. "When I was 16, I attended a summer school at the University. It was a one-week taster of university life, with law lectures, writing workshops, CV and application sessions. It made me feel like I could fit in at a university. If it wasn’t for that summer school, I definitely don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now.”
Through a comprehensive outreach programme, the University delivers aspiration-raising activity to Nottingham’s young people, from engaging educational activities in primary schools through to information and guidance on applying to universities for sixth-form and college students.
“Nottingham sits in an area of social and educational deprivation,” explains Emma Szembek, Deputy Director of Student Recruitment (Widening Participation and Outreach) at the University. “Part of our civic role as a University is to aid educational attainment and aspiration in the area. We really want to engage with our local communities.
"We run three Nottingham Potential IntoUniversity centres, in partnership with the charity IntoUniversity, in Hyson Green, Broxtowe and St Ann’s. These are disadvantaged, hard-to-reach communities. By directly working with Nottingham families and communities, we can try and bring about change.”
While crucial, raising aspirations and creating pathways to university are just one part of the picture. With undergraduate course fees currently at £9,250, and ever-increasing living costs, financial barriers are another obstacle that prevent disadvantaged students from pursuing their university dreams. That’s where philanthropically-funded scholarships and bursaries can make all the difference.
After her father passed away when she was 11, and with pressure on her mum to raise Natalie and her younger brother as a single parent, a scholarship was instrumental in enabling Natalie to study law. “It definitely, definitely helped,” said Natalie. “I used it to buy my books,especially because law textbooks are so expensive. Sometimes it would cost a substantial amount for the smallest book! There would have been a lot more pressure on my mum if it wasn't for the scholarship.”
Against a challenging background, the University’s approach to widening participation is paying dividends. In 2018, 70% of IntoUniversity centre school leavers progressed to university, while in the 10 years from 2004 to 2014, the University's intake of low income students rose by nearly 10 percentage points from 17% to 27%. At a national level, the Social Mobility Commission found an increasing proportion of students from low-income families entering university, at 26% compared to 43% of their better-off peers.
Yet getting into university is just one step. New research by the London School of Economics shows there is still a class employability gap, with those from privileged backgrounds who get 2:2s more likely to get a top job than working-class students who went to the same universities and got a First. The focus on access to education can often mask the other half of the picture; that disadvantaged students still face barriers even once they are in or have progressed through higher education.
“I remember my first law lecture – I think it was contract law – and thinking that nothing made sense, I had made the wrong decision studying law and that I could not do it," recalls Natalie."I knew very few lawyers growing up. My parents ran a Chinese restaurant and my grandparents ran a Chinese takeaway. I grew up in this environment. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a big lecture hall trying to learn contract law. It just didn't feel like I necessarily fitted in at first.”
Role models like Natalie are significant to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to navigate the unfamiliar environments of higher education and the careers to which they aspire. Alongside her professional career, Natalie volunteers for the University, mentoring students, sharing her experience at career events and hosting work placement students interested in a legal career.
“I sympathise so much with young people,” said Natalie. “There’s a lot of pressure on them. I think when you are real and yourself, they open up to you and tell you their worries. They listen to you because you’ve been there before. It’s really important for students to be able to interact with a real person they can relate to.
"I have many work experience students come to shadow me and I try to get them to see this could be a path for them. I think it’s fair to say in law that it’s still quite who you know, as it is with lots of industries. There's something that motivates me about aiming high. I would love to be a judge one day. I hope this would then inspire others from similar backgrounds to mine that they too could do it."
“I think sometimes the conversation around disadvantaged students can either lead to feeling sorry for people from these backgrounds or conversely to feeling that they are being helped through just because they are disadvantaged," Natalie continues. "That really misses the point. I don’t think there should be positive discrimination, but how can you argue with the fact that low-income families have fewer opportunities? Disadvantaged students that come to universities like Nottingham are all high achievers but they may well need extra encouragement and reassurance. We need to create a better world where more people can enjoy opportunities to succeed.”
The role of universities in facilitating social mobility cannot be understated. But as much as creating more opportunities, the next step is to create the right opportunities, reflecting the issues and nuances of the local educational environment.
“We’ve got lots of new initiatives to launch,” said Emma. “The 'Universities for Nottingham' programme is a big step forward, working in particular with Nottingham Trent University and the city councils to look at educational work in the area and how we can join together to make more impact.
"We’re also looking to increase our higher degree apprenticeship routes, opening up higher education through a more vocational pathway. Our end goal is to have a university education where all students can take part and succeed.”
The power of education to transform lives and shape the future of society is unparalleled. Yet to ensure this potential can be realised we need to break down barriers at each stage, not just in accessing higher education, but through a degree and beyond. Together,as a university community, we can realise Sir Jesse Boot’s vision, to create a brighter future for each succeeding age.
Towards a better future, together
Thanks to alumni donations, 91 new students from disadvantaged backgrounds received a scholarship and started their University experience in September. And once here, amazing alumni volunteers like Natalie inspire and support our students to fulfil their potential.
You can make a big difference
- Help inspire our students by becoming a volunteer
- Support our students by giving to our scholarships programme