Higher education in the United Kingdom is riddled with inequalities, says Ben Whittaker, National Union of Students (NUS) director of student voice and influence. For many students, opportunities slam shut every step of the way. Improving equality is not only about students getting in – but also on – at university.

Closed doors for the poors

Indeed, access to universities has not improved for some of the poorest in society, argued Whittaker, whose first higher education experience was at the University of West London. Further, there is the question of access to what? “Let’s look at London. We’re sitting in one of the elite universities, ‘the best’, and then we’ve got the rest, around the M25 where the black students go, the poor students go, the mature students go, most of the people with care responsibilities go.”

Whittaker pointed to some of the obvious inequalities in UK higher education. “If you go to the best university you will be surrounded by the best research, you will talk more about research and as a result you are more likely to become a researcher.” At the best universities, there is access to courses most students cannot dream of. Before they even enter university, because of school grades, students are told that there are things they cannot study: “We are endangering our own structures and reproducing privilege.”

Inequalities extend to student unions

Those at top universities can receive millions of pounds of funding for activities and societies and clubs, “to enrich the lives of students who got two As and probably already have enriching cultural capital from their school life”. Down the road, the impoverished student union at a modern university must deploy “do-it-yourself craftism, which doesn’t have the same impact on your CV”.

Many students do not see themselves in university billboards and brochures, in terms of identify, and must decide whether to change to fit the picture or stay themselves and limit their life chances. The NUS leadership is prioritising the issue of poverty, and has looked at class and poverty and the impact on access to, and the journey through, higher education. “What we know is that cultural capital and economic capital are linked,” says Whittaker.

At the same time, universities could do things to make life better for students in terms of inequality, for instance in teaching and learning, and creating nurturing environments for individual students. Universities could look at systems of assessment, which can set students up to fail and drop out.