The last few years have been a painful process of realising that the Academy is still very much an elitist institution. It functions to let certain people in, and keep certain people out, striving to allow only a certain privileged demographic to contribute to knowledge production, namely: the white, cisgender, male upper and middle classes.

This article covers a brief summary of the ways in which graduate schools in the UK (and in the US) actively uphold discriminative practices and structures that maintain their elitism and inaccessibility.

Before applying

This elitism exists most explicitly (and insidiously) in the graduate schools of universities. The elitism entrenched in graduate schools starts before admission – it begins with the admission process, including the run up to applying. Rising tuition fees, sometimes rocketing to over £20,000 a year, deters applicants from poorer socio-economic backgrounds from considering postgraduate education. As a result, universities have already penned out a large sector of potential applicants, simply because they cannot afford the costs of attending university. As an applicant from a family who are currently very financially unstable, I found myself selecting universities based on the promise of full scholarships or low tuition fees (the latter being a rarity). At the time, I had to rule out many courses and universities that, without my severe financial constraints, I wouldn’t have hesitated applying to. 

The application process

Graduate applications can be exhausting, extensive and unforgiving. Completing one application, let alone multiple ones, requires time and sometimes even money (in the UK, universities like Oxford and Cambridge require payment of application fees, which are usually upward of £50). And in the US, the financial burden of simply applying to universities is even worse than in the UK. To register for the mandatory GRE (and TOEFL if English isn’t your native language), you need to pay $195 (that’s £127.20). This elitism is compounded further when you take into account that you can re-take your GRE and TOEFL exams as many times as you like* until you get the score you’re looking for – if you can afford it. Some applicants take the GRE up to 5 times in one year before applying to universities, that’s a whopping total of $975, or £636. But wait, there’s more — in the US, most, if not all universities (and certainly all Ivy Leagues) require an application fee to be paid, and these can soar up to $150 per application. So if you’re looking to apply to 5 universities in the US like I did, that’s a total of 5 application fees at roughly $125 per application and the GRE registration fee at $195, which comes to a grand total of $820, or £534.99. My parents struggled to afford these fees, so you can only imagine how impossible graduate school is for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds than I.

*From the ETS website: ‘You can take the computer-delivered [GRE] test once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period (365 days). […] You may take the paper-delivered test as often as it is offered.’

Discrimination at every stage

The academy is rife with discrimination. Universities have historically maintained and embodied the oppressive systems in which they exist, despite BME (black and minority ethnic), working class and LGBTQ students now having more access to these institutions than before. And while work produced by many academics have worked as counter-cultural critiques of these very systems, they nonetheless remain embedded within the practices and structures of the academy. For instance, research from the LSE has demonstrated that applicants from BME backgrounds are less likely to receive conditional university offers than white British applicants with comparable applications and grades. This research, coupled with numerous other reports of discrimination against BME applicants, confirms that institutionalised racism inhibits BME students from accessing and flourishing in institutes of further and higher education. Considering these reports, it is easy to see how discrimination in graduate school may even be intensified as a result of competitive admissions processes and smaller graduate cohorts. For those marginalised students who are granted admission, the discrimination they face by faculty, staff and fellow students is systematic and prolific within graduate schools. Moreover, with the increasing neoliberalisation of universities in the UK, international non-EU BME students are frequently racially abused and treated as disposable burdens by the institutions they attend. Take Sanaz Raji’s case for instance — she was a PhD student on a scholarship at the University of Leeds, who, after suffering a serious accident that physically disabled her, had her scholarship revoked for ‘lack of progression in her academic work’ (not taking into account her physical disability) and was racially abused and insulted by faculty and staff (revealed in emails), leaving her homeless and without an income.

Knowledge production within the academy

The elitism of graduate school also affects the knowledge produced by faculty and graduate students within the academy. It means that only certain people are able to contribute to academic knowledge production at graduate and faculty level, and therefore, a certain type of knowledge is continually reproduced:

But aside from the precarious status of new generations of scholars, what I wish to emphasize here is that this bourgeois academic dominance has historically produced a specific bourgeois knowledge, particularly in relation to social inequality. My basis for this claim – as questionable as it may be – is that the way in which scholars see the world and thus, for instance, produce scientific knowledge, is not solely a function of personal ideas and experience but is also deeply influenced by their social status. – Antonio De Lauri, ‘Bourgeois Knowledge #UniversityCrisis

To tackle elitism within the academy at its core, we must critique and deconstruct the social inequalities that enable it to exist and thrive in the first place. It is our responsibility, as academics, students, researchers, lecturers and professors to write reflexively about our own positionality within the academy and in relation to our work. And most importantly, it is our responsibility to recognise our complicity in reproducing the inequalities around us. For change to take place within graduate schools and outside, we must be willing to face our own privileges and not stay silent on issues of inequality and oppression.

If you have found this blog post interesting, then check out the other three blog posts in my Grad School series at:

Applying to Graduate School in America: What to do before you apply

Applying to Graduate School in America: How to Apply

Applying to Graduate School in America: After applying


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