Financial Privilege: Academia’s Worst Kept Secret

Mahilha Reza looks at how financial privilege impacts students

Academia is limited to a privileged few, and there needs to be a more significant push to create a space for those lacking such privilege. The means test is a critical part of the university admissions process but, regardless of the support systems fashioned by some institutions, many students from low-income backgrounds fall at the first financial hurdle. Universities, or more specifically the makeup of the university; its staff and students, need to acknowledge that this is a systematic failure that they are all too complicit within.

Some students are unable to wage a space in the academic world as it becomes a commodity that is afforded by a few. This embrace of commodification favours those with an element of financial privilege. However, the growing marketisation of academic institutions is only one contributor in the marginalisation of poorer students- the inability to recognise the dominance of some students’ financial privilege is another.

There is a pattern across society by the beneficiaries of financial privilege that an acknowledgement of their privilege is a taboo. In the case of some university students, denying their financial privilege stems from the idea that their place is earnt through academic success and that financial security plays a minor role in their success. Some also feel that in recognising such privileges, you place yourself in the position of an oppressor. This idea is supported by Diane Goodman, in her article ‘Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities’, where she states that ‘students may equate being part of the dominant group with being an oppressor.’ The dominant group, in this case, being the financially privileged. Acknowledging that your financial privilege helped you, in no way invalidates your academic achievements- you are just aware that a system provided you with some level of support that is denied to others.

Fear of accepting privilege is, in part, driven by a lack of awareness that privilege and oppression can be intersectional. For instance, your socioeconomic status may put you in a position of privilege, but your race may deny you other forms of privilege. Race, sexuality, gender, class and socioeconomic statuses are nuances to a person’s identity but, often, it is a focus on an oppressed nuance that can produce a denial of any privileges a person may have. The intersectionality of such identities mentioned can make discussions uncomfortable for some. As such features are a significant facet of our identities, criticisms can be challenging to take on board; nonetheless, It is important to establish that you can simultaneously benefit from privilege while suffering from oppression.

Often, in not recognising financial privilege, people end up denying students from less financially privileged backgrounds a chance to convey their concerns. Derald Sue Wing argues in Microaggressions in Everyday Life, that ‘perpetrators are usually unaware that they have engaged in an exchange that demeans the recipient of the communication.’ Some people may be ‘unaware’, but it is vital, for academia to become a diversified space, that people acknowledge patterns of microaggression stemming from privilege and work towards dismantling it. University educators can also help students better understand their privileged backgrounds and identities by having open and honest discussions about the politics of privilege. Further steps can be made; for instance, diversify your curricula- make it more accessible to those from all backgrounds and not just aimed at a select few.

Check in with your students who may be falling behind and don’t make assumptions. Support initiatives that help students enter universities through paths that may not be conventional (i.e. students who study Access Programmes or BTEC Diplomas.) Simply, the cycle of meritocracy on a financial basis can be cracked slightly by providing a more inclusive curriculum and improving pastoral care.

Academic attainment is often linked with a student’s socioeconomic status. Students from private or grammar school educated backgrounds are more likely to have access to materials and stimuli that prepare them well for university-level study. Universities UK  addressed the dropout rate of students from areas with limited higher education progression, stating that it was at 8.2%. With such a high dropout rate, it is evident that universities are failing students. In response to the rising issue in lack of academic progression and social mobility for students, universities are pursuing much-needed research projects. The Paired Peers Scheme at the University of Bristol explores how class poses a barrier to social mobility. More specifically, it tackles socioeconomic issues by pairing undergraduate students from all walks of life and tracking their process through the years.

There is still a long way to go until academia becomes a wholly inclusive place. We can begin to take steps towards this by understanding the privileges afforded to us. By supporting initiatives that work with students to diversify the academic space; by pushing for your departments to have curriculums that welcome all levels of knowledge and interest- we can break academia’s worst kept secret: financial privilege.