An investigation into classism culture at universities

CW: Discussion of sexual assault and racism

University is often sold to prospective students as an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and to broaden our horizons; an exciting, somewhat utopian, possibility. However, the reality is often a culture shock upon realising the extent of other people’s charmed lives and the close-minded prejudice that comes with it.

Middle-class students dominate universities. One consequence of this is that the promised cultural exchange is at risk of being a one-way street.

I decided to speak to other students to gauge the extent of the classism they experienced. This, as upsetting as it was, was unsurprising. After reading that at Durham University in 2020 a competition for ‘posh lads’ to sleep with ‘the poorest girl’ was exposed, I had begun to suspect that similar attitudes existed elsewhere, and as an Oxford student myself, I didn’t have to look far. 

A friend recounted a conversation amongst two privately educated freshers which they overheard in a cafe: one “had a friend in Liverpool uni and one in Newcastle, and they were having a race to see who could ‘score a hattrick of easy northern girls’.”

Another common story was the prejudice towards fellow students based on their accents. A Bristol student confided in me: “within the first few days of freshers week a boy in my accommodation told me I sounded like a p*key (I’m from northwest Kent but, in his eyes, apparently if you don’t have an RP English accent you’re a p*key)”. 

To encapsulate the culture shock, an international student has observed: “I have noticed even in my first term at Oxford that people, especially those in the upper classes, will ask the same kinds of questions to try and ascertain my ‘social standing’ or whatever. I think people find it hard to place me in their mental social schemas.” 

At the same time, another student vented to me about the “fetishisation of working-class culture” coming from “rich private school girls” who throw around the term ‘chav’. It’s a complaint which I’ve heard countless times before. On a similar theme, I was told Newcastle freshers would wear t-shirts with ‘your dad works for my dad’ written on them, a message aimed at the Northumbria students (evidencing a divide between Russell Group and former polytechnic). Such thinking is a product of a life of privilege, where those who receive an exclusive education arrive at university with arrogance and a superiority complex.

“Some of these narrow-minded people we encounter at university will go on to be successful and influential, and perhaps even future political leaders. We deserve better”

It went on and on, with far too many stories and class-based issues raised to be featured in this article. In no way is this an attempt to present a comprehensive picture. Instead, I hope to draw attention to the fact that working-class students are itching to have their voices heard about the daily prejudice they face.  As long as such deep classism continues to be unchecked, these traditional havens for the middle classes will remain hostile to those who enter into them from the outside. 

In the wake of the recent A Levels fiasco, class issues have slowly begun to enter the conversation regarding higher education in earnest. However, as such discussions can force people to re-evaluate their own problematic or prejudiced behaviour, as well as the structural inequalities in society from which they have benefitted, we have a long way in tackling such pernicious bigotry with the frankness it deserves. Some of these narrow-minded people we encounter at university will go on to be successful and influential, and perhaps even future political leaders. We deserve better.

Article by Jade Calder

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