"What university do you go to?"  "Manchester university" "Really!? Not Manchester Met?" "Nope’" "What course are you doing?" "Biomedical Sciences" "Oh wow!?"

That’s how it all started. My introduction as an African Caribbean male, attending a Russell Group University. I didn't know it at the time, but this was a big deal.

According to Runnymede between 2007 and 2008 (the year I graduated) only 16% of African Caribbean men went to university, and of those only 37.7% gained a first or upper second class. In 2015 45% of Black Africans and 30% of Black Caribbean individuals in the UK lived in poverty. These facts must be related.

I was a part of that 16%, and was the first male in my family to attend university. Growing up, I attended a state comprehensive in South London, with the expectation that I would always attend university. However, when it came to choosing one, I was lost. Had it not been for my mother who explained to me that her workplace only recruited from certain universities, I might not have ended up at the University of Manchester.

Unlike most students, I couldn’t afford to stay in university halls for the first three years of my course. To stay afloat, I had to work during term time and summer breaks. At the beginning, I didn’t think this was an issue or unusual; I’d had a part time job since I was 16. However, I remember attending one of my first lectures and the senior tutor pointing out that students should not work more than 16 hours a week, and ideally shouldn’t work at all. I kept on thinking she’s speaking to people who live in a different world to me, as I had to work to survive in university.

I read Biomedical Sciences, which was part of the wider Biological Sciences school, and one of the things I noticed was the lack of African or African Caribbeans in a student population of over 500. At most it would have been between 2-5%. There are more students of Black Caribbean origin at London Metropolitan University than at all the Russell Group universities put together (Runnymede, 2007). Now it made sense why people were constantly surprised that I attended the University of Manchester, because there simply weren’t many African or African Caribbeans there, especially males!

One of the main goals of universities, especially the Russell Group, must be to aid social mobility. But if the same structural inequalities remain in place on the way to university and during your time there, how will anything ever change?

The fact that I was able to attend the University of Manchester, and then go on to become a Chartered Accountant means that my life, but more importantly the life of my children and my grandchildren, will never be the same. This opportunity has permanently altered the future of my family, and the community around me.

This is the whole point of university, and if these types of opportunities are accessible only to the privileged then it contradicts the very foundation of what a university education is meant to represent.

Aaron Townsend participated in the Educating All research into the barriers faced by working class students within higher education.

The report is being presented in London at the New Economics Foundation on Thursday 16th February from 7 – 9 pm. We will present our findings to universities and policy makers from around the country. The evening will consist of guest speakers and discussion groups on the important topic of social mobility within higher education. 

Our aim is to start a process that leads to lasting change. In 2017 we will be working with individual universities and their students to develop tailored responses to the challenges addressed in this blog and the Educating All report. Working class young people will be at the heart of the change that needs to come.

If this is an issue that is close to you or your institution, and you would like to participate in this change, contact [email protected]