Physics favours the rich?

Aaron Iftikhar.

The education system, within which universities operate, still conducts itself under the pretence of equality. Universities are places of self expression, the pursuit of knowledge and one’s self, right? Is it just me who thinks this is nothing more than rhetoric, a way of protecting these out-dated, inherently unequal institutions by confounding them in years and years of ‘untouchable’ nuance. The reality is, no matter how much romanticism you wish to associate to UK universities, they have always been – and although slightly improving, still do act as breeding grounds for the fortunate few.

As one of the 3,550 full-time UK-domiciled students studying physics at university, whose parents fit within the four lowest socio-economic groups (SEGs) [1], I am constantly faced with this elephant in the room. The inequality I talk about is embarrassingly easy to find online in the form of national statistics. An article published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) [2] in 2005 categorised working age people into SEGs. It found that of the working population between the ages of 45 – 54, 40.6% were in the lowest four groups, whilst 48.8% were in the top three. The remainder were in education or long term unemployment. This age range represents the average ages of parents with children aged 18-20 in full-time higher education (HE). These statistics give a rough estimate of the ratio of students in HE we should expect from the respective socio-economic groups. However, a Guardian article from 2009 [3] reported that 21% of full time participation in HE was comprised of students aged 18-20 whose parents were in the four lowest socio economic groups, whereas 41.2% had parents in the top three groups. It is fair to say that an evaluation over all the ages of parents would be better representative, but in any case, the disparity is clearly evident.

Undergraduate physics programmes

Delving deeper into university admissions statistics for STEM subjects reveals how courses perceived to be more academic, like physics, are underrepresented by students with parents in the lowest four SEGs. The Institute of Physics (IOP) released a statistical report in March 2012 categorising students studying their first degree in physics by the SEG of their parents [4]. The study included data from students studying between the years of 2004-2010. It found that the percentage of the total number of students whose parents were in the top three SEGs was 77.8%, whereas those whose parents fitted in the lowest four accounted for just 22.6%. This statistic in itself is quite startling considering the ONS puts the ratio of parents in the highest SEGs to those in the lowest SEGs at approximately 49 to 41.

An even greater concern is that undergraduate physics programmes are performing much worse than biomedical and engineering programmes in terms of socio economic diversity and equality. The same IOP study found that biomedical science programmes included 33% of students from the four lowest SEGs, whereas engineering boasted an impressive 36.1%. The discrepancy between these courses and physics programmes is a curious one. Why are students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to study engineering than physics? An argument explaining this is that these students put extra onus on studying degrees in which they perceive there will be the best monetary outcome or job stability, rather than studying a subject they enjoy or are interested in. It certainly makes sense to me, a graduate with an engineering degree or who is studying to become a doctor or a nurse has a more clearly defined career path than one with a physics degree. Hence these students choose to study a subject which best enables them to lift themselves out of their current SEG.

The argument is a credible one and certainly explains why these students choose to study engineering or medicine over physics. However the average starting salaries for physics and engineering graduates are similar [5]. Starting salaries usually play some role when students choose their course and so it is reasonable to assume that students will be aware of these similarities. This indicates that there is another reason for these students rejecting more academic courses in favour for vocational ones. Interestingly other academic degree courses such as maths and chemistry display similar results to physics in the IOP survey. This indicates that the problem is more fundamental – it lies in the teachings of these academic subjects at a grass-roots level, including in secondary schools. I argue that students whose parents are economically disadvantaged are not taking academic subjects because their schools are no longer adequately equipped, for various reasons, to effectively teach them. This is backed up by the fact that students from poor families usually – due to circumstance – attend failing or non satisfactory schools [6].

Teaching in secondary schools

Often the biggest obstacle to overcome when attracting students from poorer backgrounds to study physics in HE, is ensuring that they have had positive experiences of learning it in the past and so want to continue. It is clear that previous experiences largely dictate your future choices. Being a student from a secondary school with a 40% GCSE pass rate and with more ‘poor’ Ofsted reports than pupils, I can say that no level of intervention after secondary school will undo the years of substandard teaching and learning environments more akin to farm yards than classrooms that students received. If a student had a bad experience of physics from their school days, due to bad teaching or misbehaving pupils, they are extremely unlikely to want to read it at university.

In order to get students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to study physics at university we must improve their experiences at school or college. The reason I chose to study a physics degree is partly due to my college physics teacher. I did not have a burning passion for physics, neither did I particularly like my classmates or college for that matter, but I really enjoyed his lessons. They were not contrived – no hydrogen filled balloons or burning jelly babies, just a great teacher teaching in that way which makes you forget the mundanity of measuring the acceleration of a mass on a spring. Just as it was for me, the best way to encourage poorer students to take physics at university is to ensure they have good teachers and good learning environments from an early stage.

Unfortunately, this appears to be more achievable in some areas of the UK than others. An Ofsted report in 2013/14 recorded the achievement of white British free school meal (FSM) pupils in terms of the percentage who achieve the standard 5 A*-C GCSE grades[7]. In the report the best 10 local authorities are shown alongside the worst 10. No prizes for guessing which group Chelsea was in, similarly you can rest assured Barnsley was not one of the top ten. Poor kids in Chelsea are for no rational reason less academically able that poor kids in Barnsley, so why does Chelsea have a 47.6% GCSE pass rate whilst Barnsley has 28.7%? Although geographical inequality is a somewhat separate issue, this does illustrate that solutions to inequality are already there. For example, why can’t the initiative that appears to be working in Chelsea then be applied to Barnsley? It is hardly like these two places have massively differing cultures which would make the same scheme compatible with one but not with the other. It is this type of blatant inequality that mars our education system.

In one of the introductory lectures in my first year of university, a lecturer quipped that maybe the next Einstein was in the room. At that point everyone felt a tiny bit smug – only to struggle doing a Taylor expansion the following week, quickly realising they are not that Einstein. For me it is a sobering thought that maybe that Einstein is in school right now. Let’s hope his parents are rich – if not he will have to play the roulette that is our education system. He could get lucky and encounter a teacher who motivates and inspires him – like me. Or he will be failed like so many before him.


[1]- [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[2] – ‘A picture of the UK using the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification’ Caroline Hall, Office of National Statistics (2005)

[3] – [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[4] = ‘Physics students in UK Higher Education Institutions’, IOP, March 2012. (page 14 – table 21)

[5] = [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[6] – [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[7] = The report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2013/14. Ofsted.

Physics favours the rich?

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