Our Research, Policy and Communications Intern, Georgia Carter, discusses how we can best support disadvantaged students during their time at university.

As record numbers of disadvantaged students in the UK apply to go to university this year, it is clear that, while there is still far more to be done, the work to widen participation in the UK is making some good progress.

But what do we know about what happens once these students make it onto campus – particularly at the most elite institutions? And what more can be done to make sure they are comfortable and continue to develop their skills? Applying and getting the grades for a university course is a massive step and the transition from sixth form to first year can be a daunting one, especially for those who may not have had family pave the way for them.

We must ensure that students from less advantaged backgrounds feel welcome and supported in elite university environments, and that they are able to make the most of the experience and opportunities for development on offer, ultimately supporting them to pursue the same jobs and future opportunities as their more privileged counterparts.

So where do these issues lie, and how can they be improved for future generations of disadvantaged students?

Elite environments and life skills

There is not enough discussion about the culture shock that students – particularly those from working-class backgrounds – experience when entering university. Many state school students at top universities tell stories of being asked ‘what school did you go to?’ during fresher’s week, only to be met with confused looks when they name their local comprehensive. Balls, formal dinners and the traditions that come with them are commonplace at some of the country’s most elite institutions. They can be seen as an important way of making friends and socialising but can also be intimidating to many non-traditional students and expensive to attend. Whilst the traditions themselves are not necessarily exclusionary, disadvantaged students can feel out of their depth in comparison to their peers.

It is not just academic skills that can be built through university. There is a whole hidden curriculum of societies and extracurricular opportunities to join, which can help to build the “essential life skills” valued by employers such as confidence and resilience. But we know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to take part in societies. Our research has found that working class students are less likely to find a society that interests them than their better off peers. They are also more likely to be unable to take part due to paid work commitments, or being unable to afford to do so.

But what can be done to do fix this? Firstly, there is power in numbers. The more students from less advantaged backgrounds are able to access these institutions, the more attitudes, and the accessibility of these traditions can change and societies can become more accessible. Universities and student unions have a clear role to play here, too. Particularly at institutions where disadvantaged students are significantly under-represented, they should work actively with SUs to create environments which respect and promote diversity, ensuring that societies and sports are accessible to all students.

Along with the chance to build essential life skills through societies and extracurricular activities, university also provides an important opportunity to build employability skills and professional networks. However, we know that access to these opportunities are not equal.

Work experience and work placements provide many students with a key opportunity to develop their employability skills. However, our research found that the cost is often a barrier for working-class students, with 20% saying they could not take up a work experience placement due to needing to spend time in better paid employment or due to the cost of commuting. Employers should ensure that all internships are paid at least the national minimum wage, and preferably the living wage. The restoration of maintenance grants – set at a sufficient level – would also provide support for those who need it most.

Support for students at university and beyond

There are many student-led organisations that are supporting students from a wide range of backgrounds, helping them to meet people who may have had similar experiences. I was personally involved with The 93% Club during my time at Durham University, a social enterprise with branches across UK universities which connect, upskill and empower state school students. Being a part of this not only enabled me to meet a group of people who I could relate to, but also helped me develop skills and connections which have set me up to secure employment after graduating this summer. At the Trust, we also encourage our alums to make the most of being a part of our alumni network, coming along to events and meetups, making friends and building their networks.

The Sutton Trust, along with many universities and third sector organisations, is also working to support students with their university experience and beyond. We provide students who have participated in our programmes with careers support, offering skills workshops, digital programmes and networking opportunities, as well as the opportunity to apply for exclusive work experience and mentoring programmes with some of the UK’s leading employers through Careers Plus. This enables students to gain an insight into working life, as well as a chance to gain the experience and skills needed to apply for internships and job roles and build a professional network.

Across both building essential life skills and employability skills, it is clear that there is still more work to be done to ensure that disadvantaged students are able to make the most of their university experience. It is so important that HE institutions are not only positioned as somewhere that disadvantaged students should be aspiring to, but also somewhere where these students feel comfortable, supported, and able to pursue the same career options as their more privileged peers.

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