From private school to Palace Green?

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Durham is a university in which stereotypes abound. The nature of the college system lends itself to generalisation: Hatfield are posh and arrogant, John’s are religious, Hilde Bede are sporty. There is rarely anything more than the most threadbare shred of truth in these mass produced opinions.

National stereotypes about the student body as a whole are just as common. Durham is infamously supposed to be the home of Oxbridge rejects, something that Palatinate recently investigated. Whether or not this is true, or indeed a bad thing, is debatable.

But perhaps the more damaging generalisation is that the privately educated, and more specifically those wishing to stay within particular circles of the wealthy, overly populate Durham. This impression is developed to the extent that it is well known enough to inform the decision of sixth formers choosing which institutions to apply to.

Speaking to Palatinate, one student who wishes to remain anonymous said, “My sister warned me not to apply to Durham because it was full of snobs. I wouldn’t have considered it at all if I hadn’t really enjoyed my college open day”. Similar stories are not hard to come by; one third-year said, “It was only after I’d accepted my offer that I was told by a teacher I’d applied to a college famous for being upper class”.

This year the proportion of Durham places taken by independently educated students was 43.2%. This is only 0.5% less than Oxford, and is actually a higher proportion than Cambridge, which admitted around 42% of its undergraduates from independent schools. In addition some colleges admitted more privately educated students than they did from the state sector. Hilde Bede was the most significant disparity, with over 60% of freshers coming from independent schools. Hatfield and St. Cuth’s also had majorities, with 51.4% and 52.7% respectively coming from the private sector. At the other end of the scale, Josephine Butler has the largest proportion of state school pupils of the Durham city campus with around 71%. There’s also a significant disparity between Hill and Bailey colleges, with Bailey having a notably higher percentage of privately educated students.

If the Queen’s Campus colleges are removed from the statistics, then around 45% of those admitted in 2009 come from independent schools, more than Oxford and Cambridge as well as every Russell Group institution.  In fact the Durham city campus would have the highest proportion of students from independent schools of all major British universities.

However, to claim that Durham is unusually dominated by the privately educated is not necessarily true. When the statistics are compared to those of other universities these claims become less and less sensational. This academic year Bristol University, which has been accused in the past of being biased against applications from independent schools to meet targets, took 41% of it’s undergraduate admissions from private schools. UCL, famous for increasing university access to a wider variety of socio-economic backgrounds, admitted 33%.

Four further institutions, Nottingham, Imperial College London, LSE and Newcastle have student bodies that contain over 30% of students from independent schools.

It is also not only Durham that has had criticism levelled at it. Recently there has even been a growing school of opinion that Newcastle is becoming famed for particularly visible and numerous proportions of privately educated students. In an infamous article in the Sunday Times, Giles Hattersley described his consternation at the class tension within the university. Students from the private sector were living a completely separate lifestyle from the rest of the university, going to different bars and clubs, and living in the most expensive areas of Newcastle in their second year.

In Durham the protests were lacklustre to say the least, with the figure quoted in the Guardian of 700 seeming hopelessly optimistic to those who had attended or seen the march up to Palace Green. Student discussion often linked this to the normal Durham stereotypes, citing the number of students with wealthy families who would not need to worry about any increase in fees. This or the decision to hold it on a wet Wednesday when many had either lectures or sports fixtures.

There are certainly aspects to Durham that are commonly associated with private school life. Rugby, a sport dominated by the independent sector at school level, is played by many and is definitely one of the most competitive college competitions. But while these are integral parts of the life of many Durham students, this does not mean that they are either only played by those that attended an independent school or that they are only part of Durham because of the number of independently educated students.

As one of the oldest universities in the country Durham has held on to traditions and antiquated practices, and student life reflects this. It is also true that many of the student population were unsuccessful applicants to Oxbridge, and that there are more privately educated students than at many other universities. Although having said that, Hatfield does have the highest proportion of gap year students. Make of that what you will.

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