Earlier this year, the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) released a report on admissions statistics to UK universities, including data on the proportion of entrants from state and private school backgrounds.
The figures show that 63 per cent of the University of Edinburgh’s students admitted between 2015/16 and 2019/20 attended a state school. This positions Edinburgh as having the second lowest proportion of state school-educated students among UK mainstream universities, with only the University of Oxford lower (by 1 per cent). This excludes specialist universities and colleges, many of which have even more disproportionate admissions.
The figures highlight a pattern of consistent barriers to social mobility across the UK. 93 per cent of UK children are state educated, leaving privately educated students vastly overrepresented at top academic institutions, with the University of Edinburgh leading the way.
Speaking to The Student, Annabel Wilde, president of the aptly named Edinburgh 93% Club – which seeks to represent the contextually small number of state school students at the university – has launched a fresh appeal for the university to enact cultural and policy change.
What is the mission of the society and your campaigns?
“At the root is a belief that universities should be representative of wider society in all senses. It’s fantastic that we are now a registered charity with a national foundation and have clubs at 50 universities across the country.
“As an example of a campaign, during the pandemic we asked people to submit a picture of their home working space to demonstrate how students can be materially disadvantaged, especially when we don’t have access to university facilities such as libraries. Some students were of course in tiny spaces, often sharing bedrooms with siblings. We sent this all off to different universities. I think we can guess which universities were more responsive…”
What was the response like from the University of Edinburgh?
“We don’t get recognised very much at all by the university. I’m aware that every school has a ‘widening participation’ team – they’re really good at representing students from disadvantaged backgrounds and do help with some pupil funding.
“However, it very much feels like Edinburgh has given us that system so that if we ask them to do anything more, they can respond with ‘well you’ve already got your widening participation team’”.
Why do people join the 93% Club in Edinburgh?
“It’s about a shared experience. This year, I was shocked at how many emails we got in freshers’ week, saying ‘I feel like I’ve made a big mistake coming here, I don’t know anybody’.
“People get to Edinburgh and go on to experience imposter syndrome, excluded from a network that is already formed when they arrive.
“Many of our new joiners had people asking them ‘what school did you go to?’ with the expectation it would be a big private school that everyone has heard of. It’s overwhelming and I want to let them know we’re here.”
Are there particular areas of university life that are worse than others?
“We really try to get more information on admission statistics from the university, but they don’t really give us anything back.
“Away from the statistics, it can be hard to get our voices heard in tutorials. Sometimes because of accents, because of our confidence levels and the communication skills that other students have been taught. Some students don’t even look at us in tutorials.
Sport can be expensive too. It put me off signing up for a team, but then I found out afterwards that the university might pay for you to join if you’re a widening participation student!”
Pollock Halls has a reputation that we’re all aware of. In some ways it’s hilarious, but do you get frustrated by the trivialisation of what could be perceived as a systemic class problem at Edinburgh, such as in the now infamous Pollock TV video?
“Within the society, it’s something that we all laugh at. It’s a huge joke! But sometimes it does get very real, and it’s scary to see how some people think.
“I had no idea about the Pollock reputation – if I had ended up there my experience might have been ten times more intense. It seems like such a good community, but when you’re on the wrong side of it I imagine it can be scarily full-on”.
What do you say to those who hear your arguments and say, ‘those with the best grades should attend university, no matter their schooling background’?
“It shouldn’t be the case that if you attend a state school you should expect a worse level of education than those at private schools. I disagree with the notion fundamentally.
“But if the average grades at private schools are A and A*, and C and above at state schools, those who are working above average at state schools are being rewarded the same as the average student at private schools.
“Sometimes, pupils at state schools have to work harder than privately educated kids to achieve similar or even lower grades. It’s about the resources people are given compared with the grades they come out with.”
If you could ask the university to change one policy or attitude in this area, what would it be?
“It really feels like Edinburgh is run like a business. For instance, buying three £50 textbooks in a term really isn’t as easy for everyone as is made out.
“In the 93% Club (which is free!), we make things fun, chat about our shared experiences and provide welfare support. Our national committee also run events and workshops that people are welcome to attend if they want a boost of confidence in the corporate world.
“Importantly, when policy is made within the uni, there is a disregard for how it might impact a student who is either low income or not as educationally advantaged as the majority. This needs to change”.
Responding to the views expressed in this interview, a spokesperson for The University of Edinburgh said:
“School background plays no part in our admissions decisions. More than 80 per cent of our Scottish domiciled entrants consistently come from a state school, students from care-experienced backgrounds have increased by 50 per cent in the last 2 years, and the proportion of students from Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas has almost doubled since 2015”.
“Students from across the UK benefit from our commitment to the Stand Alone Pledge and our new Access Edinburgh Scholarship”.
“We have just launched a new education centre in a Craigmillar, Edinburgh that will support thousands of local young people from aged 7 to 18”.
“We want Edinburgh students to flourish, and are always ready to meet students to discuss their experience and ways in which we can provide support”.
Image: The 93% Club