On classism: Personal reflections by a student

Image by Deepali Foster

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I have tried to write this article three times now and failed. Each time I think, am I going too far? Is someone going to shout at me if I write about this? But this is an issue that has gone on for far too long and appears as an accepted fact of life when attending a top university. It is something we need to acknowledge.

The issue is: UK universities have an elitism problem.

It is a sad fact that from the first moment a working class or state-school student steps into the university campus, they are acutely aware of a pervading elitism and classism. And yes, it is exactly that – pervading. I noticed it from the moment I walked through the campus halls and into the first introductory lecture. But universities seem to believe that once they admit a working class or state-school applicant, their systemic issues of class differences disappear.

All I can do is disagree.

Although I prefer not to blindly rely on statistics, they do at least attempt to show some truth to the problem.  According to HESA, only 69.7% of the home students at University College London (UCL), where I study, attended state-school. A similar issue appears in Oxbridge — 32% of Cambridge students and 60% of Oxford students attended private school. In these universities, many of the working-class students are on scholarships, forced to write ‘Thank-You’ letters to their donors who expect a pat on the back.

Perhaps you can see why I am frustrated here.

I was told throughout my time at school how my main problem was getting into university, and after that I would enter a dreamland filled with diverse people and cultures. This was far from the case. Where I came from, a Midlands town, everyone was from the same working-class background and you did not feel self-conscious if you had to buy a pair of shoes from Primark. At UCL, I suddenly found myself amidst a flood of white upper-class people — a strange experience. My first time on campus, when someone asked what school I was from, I gave them a name. They immediately assumed it was the nearest private school — not the state-school on the other side of town with its ceiling almost falling in. Although this one example may not seem significant to some, when you are subject to constant elitism, it can become frustrating.

Telford, the small town outside of Birmingham where Cam is from.

But there are other systemic issues that go beyond the upper class ‘bubble’. UCL itself is in the middle of a very expensive London borough, which comes with an inherent problem of its own: money. I cannot count the many times my tutor at school urged me to reconsider my choice of university just because of this; a valid concern according to the tutor. However, no one stressed how expensive it would be to live in London as a student. When I tell people from my hometown how much I fork out monthly on a flat that barely has a working kitchen sink, they gasp. The bills, groceries, public transport and school books are a whole different matter. This lifestyle causes immense stress, while other students are happily living in central London townhouses — oblivious to the harshness of student life in London for someone like myself. This frustrates me to the core. And I am not afraid to admit it: the wealth gap should frustrate anyone.

First, I had to relentlessly fight against a broken system to get here, now I have to do the same to stay.

Although students at UCL are predominantly liberal, it does feel hopeless at times when you are surrounded by this privilege — causing a gap you will never be able to fill. You can see this gap not only in lifestyle differences but in differences of behaviour and preparation for university. One visible example is during seminars, that particularly accentuates the divide. When surrounded by students who have had years of elocution lessons and practiced how to ‘intellectually’ express themselves and participate eloquently in discussions, you become acutely aware of dropping your ‘t’s’ or saying ‘like’ after every two words. Although you might not even be aware you had an accent before coming to university, it suddenly becomes a signifier of your background. I have to admit, I am enrolled in an English degree, which is probably the most pretentious subject I could have chosen – but when you are so focused on language the intricacies in speech start to scream back at you. In seminars, particularly in the first year before I learned how to assert myself, there was a noticeable problem of some students speaking over others or repeating themselves due to not knowing how to express themselves. Speaking to ex-private school students, it seems they may not even realise how different they are – but it becomes demoralising at some point for students like myself.

This problem is bigger than just me, one student at UCL. Another working-class friend of mine who studies Languages at a ‘top’ university was told it was not the university’s fault they could not afford a year abroad due to the Conservatives dismantling Erasmus, and left them alone to sort it out. It is beyond me how universities and the Tories expect all students to spend so much capital on compulsory parts of their degrees. It makes me sad, but not surprised.

Now in my second year at UCL, I find myself surrounded by a group of friends predominantly from working class backgrounds — many of us still feel a lingering sense of imposter syndrome. Although I struggled with being confident during seminars in my first year, when I did not know how to string together a sentence of ‘intellectual’ words on a whim like others did, I literally cannot stop talking in seminars now. I have realised I do not have to change my dialect to be respected, and whether I say ‘like’ every few words does not change the substance of my speech. I am smart, even if it comes off as overconfidence at times. My battle has been an uphill one in an environment that is inherently elitist.

My experiences of classism at UCL have led me to believe that working class students have to work twice, maybe thrice as hard to achieve the same level as my more privileged peers. This structural issue found in British academic institutions should be recognised as a problem, not merely accepted as reality. While I have experienced a classist system of oppression, other students may have experienced other forms of oppression in universities like racism. To dismantle this accepted system will take time, yet that is not an excuse to let it continue.

Article by Cam Mackie