Life Personal Experience

The impact of under-representation on potential university applicants

By Nancy Tupling

‘Uni just isn’t for me’.

This is the response from my friend from home who is currently working full-time. Of course, university certainly isn’t for everyone and I’m not trying to say that people who don’t go to university should be questioned about it. However, I can’t help but wonder whether the image of university; the myths surrounding it; and the academic pressure of it, had an impact on her choice to stay in our tiny Northern village for the foreseeable future. Simply put, the issue of accessibility at many universities is putting off young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying, and this is having a direct impact on their mental health.

I decided to have a longer chat with this friend about her decision to stay in full-time work. Initially it was the pandemic: why would anyone want to go to such an intense learning environment during a pandemic, when there will be no social events happening? As the conversation drew on, she mentioned how she did not feel smart enough even try to apply to university, despite achieving good grades in her A-levels that would definitely have got her into uni. When we discussed this further, she explained how she doesn’t see any school friends around her (apart from me) going to university; no siblings, parents or other relatives have attended university; and she ‘never sees anyone like her going to uni’. By ‘like her’, she meant people from the North of England.

It probably did not help that her only friend going to uni went to Cambridge, which is full of southerners, and I returned with stories that I now worry put her off a little. Not only this, but Northern academics, particularly ones with broad Yorkshire accents like hers, are rare. Admittedly, the prospect of moving so far down south where I knew there would be only a small group of people from the North (shoutout to the Northern Society) was daunting, but my parents had both been to university, as had many of my relatives, and also many of my college friends were also moving away from home to university. For me, although the under-representation of Northern people at Cambridge was slightly daunting, most of my network had been to university and were able to address my concerns. For my friend, these concerns were merely heightened by local friends and family members who viewed university as a place ‘people like them’ (as she described) don’t go.

I know she had been thinking about university, because she had sent me different websites for universities where she could stay relatively close to where we lived. But despite her good grades, the under-representation she saw meant she now works full time.

We then moved on to talk about whether she thought this had impacted her mental health and self-worth at all. She said it had. A lot. For many people such as myself, under-representation, although daunting, compels me to try harder and break the glass ceiling. But for her it portrayed a clear message: ‘you don’t belong here’. Not hearing anyone that sounded like her, even at the more local universities, made her doubt her own intelligence, thereby damaging her mental health. Under-representation at university is causing people to doubt their own intelligence – this is a tragedy that should not be happening. Universities need to demonstrate effectively to applicants that there is a place for everyone, no matter their socio-economic background, race, or accent. Because otherwise, a group of people are left feeling as though university is simply not an option for them.

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