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Is University Inherently Elitist?

Examining the Practices which make our University Inaccessible to Disadvantaged Students

By Cole Rashid Michelon

Image by Stanislav Kondratiev via Pexels

Unsurprisingly, university language is overcomplicated; many students over the years have complained about struggling to read texts or understand their lecturers. Of those, many are students of disadvantaged or foreign backgrounds, so, does this overcomplicated language have its roots primarily in elitism?

Many universities in Scotland have a diverse array of students from many backgrounds, but academia seems to only cater to the already elite - meaning those who have had private education, those who had a well-funded public school or someone who has had (by some means or other) access to a privileged education in society. For example, in one of my recent readings for an assessment, I came across a recommended article that was almost incomprehensible. At first, I thought that they surely made a mistake and would not assign first year students such a hefty text to read, but they did. So, I asked my peers, all of whom could not even begin to understand what the text was about. Which begs the question, who was this text for if not the majority of first year students?

The effect of this is that it weeds out the most academically inclined students. These students are most likely those that were raised around and encouraged to read lots of complex literature, these students most likely came from in privileged households and seen as the elite. Hence, I believe the university is (intentionally or not) catering to the elite.

But does this actually affect the majority of students? Though I gave the example of overcomplex recommended readings, there were alternatives for disadvantaged students such as the availability of other texts or being able to partake in the buddy system of which most universities and courses have some variation. The ability to choose other texts allows the students to still be able to engage with the course and produce high quality work while not needing to constantly change their linguistic landscape just to keep up with the coursework. Similarly, the buddy system allows for students to have access to someone who could provide understanding on how to interpret text, encourage students and give good advice to help other students thrive in their courses. The universities seem to be making an effort to equalise education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Another example of elitism within the university is the unhandled effect of financial inequality. While university is widely accessible to Scottish residents, it is less accessible to a disadvantaged student.

Those who already come from a disadvantaged background have to work twice as hard as the average student, not only to get into university but also to keep attending university. Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds work part time jobs in order to provide for themselves (for example to purchase required textbooks or to pay for university events that are vital to making connections). This is a huge inequality because disadvantaged students have to constantly make choices between their education and finances.

While SAAS is great to somewhat lift the burden of expenses, the budget is still incredibly restrictive compared to the students who already had the money to spend in the first place. This is seen time and time again - a close friend of mine reports that they find it incredibly restrictive to live solely on student loans and that they need to skip meals or shopping trips in order to keep themselves afloat. They report their academics being affected by this as skipping meals often causes exhaustion and an inability to focus in class which jeopardises their study time as well as giving the student more catchup work to do. This could be considered elitist in that the university benefits students from already wealthy backgrounds and those who are not have to take extra responsibilities to attend university at all.

I feel the need to make the readers aware that the university has a program for disadvantaged students (much like the SAAS or LEAPS appeal scheme) called an ‘Open to All’ fund. The page (last updated on the university page in 2021) is open to all disadvantaged students and states that “University activities have already raised £6,000”.

Upon first impression this seems like a great thing for disadvantaged students, but the site makes no effort to make the fund accessible to disadvantaged students. There is no email of who to contact nor a site to direct students as to where to apply, no criteria of who can apply (hence deferring students from applying altogether) and  no link to apply for support on the page, only a link to donate to the page. If the university made students more aware of this fund it could be beneficial to students but is so underground that many students will simply have never heard of it, much less use it to their advantage.

That being said, it is important to ask: are the alternatives in place enough to equalise the inequalities disadvantaged students face? I believe not, because universities still weed out the most elite students. This is done by meriting those who have written the most elaborately. Even as I write this, I feel the need to use complex language in order to impress my peers and those who read this article, supplying a demand created by academia that says in order for something to be seen as an academic, one would have to use complicated language only other academics (formed by the elite) could understand.

In conclusion, universities and academia in general are inherently elitist. While there have been attempts to equalise this (and whilst they have been somewhat successful) these have not been able to equalise completely the deeply ingrained elitism in academia.

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Jun 14

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