Being working-class at university pervades almost every aspect of your experience. It becomes something that you think about every day – whether it’s an offhand comment, or an overarching feeling that you just don’t get the culture that you’ve suddenly become a part of.
I existed in what was very much a cultural purgatory throughout university. When I went home, things were different, and when I was at university, I felt different. Clinging onto my identity – or even working out what my identity was – was a struggle, and I fell in and out of toxic patterns of behaviour trying to work it out. Was I a working-class girl with an attitude from the West Midlands, or a potential ‘academic’ like everybody else?
Though it did – and does – feel isolating, classism at university has finally come into the spotlight following multiple scandals at Durham University. Students joked in a group chat about having sex with ‘the poorest girl’, and called people ‘feral’ for having northern accents. Working-class students were approached by those who said they would sleep with them because they had a ‘poverty fetish’, and were mocked for working to support themselves through university.
In the hope of understanding the issue further, I submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to Russell Group universities on class discrimination.
Durham University held discrimination reports about social class, but refused to release them on the grounds that they intended to “publish the information at some future date, whether determined or not.” Whilst UCL told me that “as class, classism, poverty and social background are not protected characteristics as outlined in the Equality Act 2010, we do not record cases under these categories.”
In short, no universities that I contacted monitored classist discrimination against either students or staff.
However, each person that I spoke to about the implications of being working-class at university had a story to tell, and – without being too soft about it – they were sad, infuriating, and acted as a source of renewed pride in my background.
Below are some important issues faced by working-class students, provided mostly by the lovely people at the Working Class Creatives Database.
A huge barrier that working-class people face at university is class prejudice. One mature student at Chelsea College of Arts – who began their course with two primary-aged children – often faced comments about their background:
I had several people want to have sex with me because they had never met anyone from an estate, and had a fantasy about us.
I had people say things like, ‘wow, your children are really well behaved,’ as if they expected them to be monsters. I had people say they felt sorry for me. When I asked why, they said ‘because you’re a mother’. Being a mother was, and is, the thing I am most proud of, and I don’t believe that they would have said that to a middle-class woman.
The former student – who is from an Irish Traveller background – continued:
I remember our first essay was to write about any aspect of any culture. I wrote about Irish Traveller horses and made some sculptures to go with it. The comments I got back were that Irish Travellers couldn’t possibly still be how I had described them. That I haven’t done my research. I remember thinking that I don’t need to read this in a book – I’ve lived it. I’m talking about cousins, uncles and aunts.
Hannah Scaife, 25, who studied at the University of Oxford, also experienced classist stereotypes:
People seemed to assume that I had a terrible home life or had suffered immensely because I grew up poor,” they said. “I come from a really working-class area and we didn’t have loads of things – but I didn’t really know I was poor poor until I got to Oxford. My parents aren’t ‘defective’ in any way just because they’re working-class.
Others were ridiculed for their accents, including one student who was corrected by a mentor for the way that she pronounced ‘vase’:
I said ‘vayse’ and she kept saying ‘what are you trying to say?’ and I said, ‘the thing you put flowers in,’ and she said, ‘oh, you mean a VAH-se?’ It was humiliating.
Many working-class students feel like ‘frauds’; that they got onto their course by some miraculous stroke of luck, or that the university had simply made a mistake. One student from the University of Edinburgh said that working-class students were told that they were simply filling a ‘postcode quota’:
It really messes with you in terms of self-doubt. You’re constantly trying to prove to yourself that you should be there, and that you deserve success.
Shona Sterland, 22, who studied at Manchester School of Art, said,
Even now, after graduating, I still suffer from intense imposter syndrome. Surely they must have marked my work wrong? I couldn’t possibly be a good enough artist to get a high first-class honours; I can’t ever imagine my work being good enough to be in a gallery or a prominent art magazine.
Chanelle Love, 21, who studied at Central Saint Martins, recognised her imposter syndrome and used it as a “catalyst” for the work that she produced in her second year:
I did a lot of performance pieces. Kind of like Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, where I’d act on spontaneity and perform something somewhere where I didn’t feel welcome. This was a way of forcing myself to be welcomed and to fit in.
As my practice has developed, imposter syndrome has made me really push a working-class narrative through my work, and I now do this with pride.
Elsewhere, working-class students often miss out on the social side of university due to financial issues. “Whilst I was working a few days a week alongside my degree, my friends had more time to focus on their work,” said Sterland. “I had to miss nights out and talks by artists I admired because I had to work evening shifts. It made me resentful of my own friends.”
Others also spoke of money problems being an obstacle to long-term friendships. “I made friends in first year, but they soon abandoned me when I wasn’t able to go out with them regularly due to finances being tight,” said one student. “They would buy £8 waffles like it was nothing after having a full dinner – I just couldn’t keep up.”
Learning the cultural ‘etiquette’
Universities also overlook the fact that many working-class students don’t have the same ‘cultural capital’ as those who are wealthier:
I left school at 12-years-old; I had never been shown how to write an essay, and I was dyslexic.
I didn’t have the language to deconstruct my work or anybody else’s, or talk about art in any way. It was as if they had given me the place but hadn’t thought for a minute about how someone from my background could possibly stay afloat.
Elsewhere, Scaife experienced the ‘public school network’ at Oxford:
My best friend in first year went to public school, and so automatically had about 200 potential friends who would hear the name of his school and immediately envelop him into their group.
I spent quite a lot of time just standing next to him as strangers ran through lists of mutual friends and areas of London that they had houses in.
“On the very first night we had formal, I was just so astonished that there were mandatory events with a dress code and rules,” Scaife continued. “We all had to stand, and the principal would say something in Latin, and then we could sit down. It felt like everybody else instinctively understood what to do, and I was the only one struggling.”
Above all, being a working-class student means that you don’t truly feel a sense of belonging anywhere. “You feel like you’re neither in one place nor the other,” said one ex-student. “At home I was ‘the one who went to university’, and at university, people asked me if I was really working-class anymore now that I had an ‘education’. That felt really weird.”
What does the future look like for working-class students?
Universities have long neglected the needs of working-class students, and – as the recent Durham stories indicate – allow classism to continue unfettered both in and out of the classroom. Class may not be a protected characteristic just yet, but accounts from students show that there is a strong case for making it one if it would curb discrimination based on social background.
Last September, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) proposed a move to do just this, and make class-based discrimination illegal. They said that it would help to tackle the persistent inequality faced by working-class people, narrow the class pay gap, and give workers a basis from which to fight direct discrimination, such as not being hired due to where you’re from, how you talk, or your financial inability to complete unpaid internships.
Those against making class a protected characteristic point to the difficulties of defining it, however, with both cultural and financial factors playing a part, as well as concerns being raised over self-identification.
As the TUC suggests, though, lengthy discussions about what it means to be working-class shouldn’t get in the way of enacting real change for those who need it. After all, all protected characteristics – from sexuality to race – have their complexities.
In the meantime, working-class students (and workers) are certainly prepared to fight their corner and take control of their own narratives. “I’m always thankful, proud and honest in my work,” says Love. “Without the archival element of the working-class [by working-class artists], we will continue to be demonised, appropriated, repressed, or worse – used as laughing stock.”
Sterland also spoke of breaking down barriers, and showing that working-class students are more than their beginnings in life. “We are talented, we are worthy, and we are not imposters,” she said. “We belong here just as much as everyone else.”