By Jake Garvey
Comments such as the one above have defined my Durham University experience. Being a student at one of the UK’s best universities has left me feeling more out of place in my home and ashamed of my accent than ever before. Durham boasts of their exceptional and highly inclusive collegiate system which brings together students from all corners of the globe. It is paradoxical, therefore, that the students who feel the most out of place aren’t those from thousands of miles away, but are those who call Durham their birthplace and home.
Durham University has recently made national headlines for purporting a “toxic” culture for local and lower-class students. Statistics support this: just 10.1% of full-time degree students come from the North East while the University themselves admit that the majority of students are from the “highest social participating neighbourhoods.” From my experience, the very core values of Durham University are to serve those who fit it’s perfect student stereotype and to cast all others aside.
From my very first day at the University, I have felt out of place. Talking in seminars yields confused glances at my Northern accent and a genuine surprise amongst peers that someone from Durham has it in them to gain a place at the University. This issue goes deeper: it alludes to a greater problem which permeates across the entire University community. Northern students simply aren’t thought of as equals; we are seen as token gestures, students admitted simply to satisfy quotas. In the majority of cases, we simply do not enter university on an equal playing field.
The University itself recognizes this and has put in place patronising schemes such as ‘Supported Progression’ which helps Northern students gain a place at Durham through a series of “immersive summer school experiences”. Prior to my entry to Durham, I was a SP student and the programme is not reflective of Durham University; staying in a college environment with students, all of whom share a similar background to you, does not prepare you for the real thing. Despite trying to help the very community which they serve, Durham doesn’t have a clue about the realities facing local students. We are simply unwelcome; the access schemes do not even operate in favour of local students. It seems the central University is blind to the needs of so many.
Imposter syndrome is an accurate way to describe the isolation and confusion felt by local students. The majority of the University community is seemingly homogenously Southern, and when you don’t align with the majority population, you begin to feel isolated. That is exactly what has happened to me throughout my time at Durham. On paper I am a Durham student, yet everything else about me has been made to feel inadequate. Even now as I type this, I worry that this piece would sound better if it was written by someone else. This is what imposter syndrome has done to me: my Durham experience has led to me feeling like a fraud; I exist at the University for legal purposes, but I do not align with the very idea of the standard Durham student.
Locals are subject to ridicule and are often treated as second-class citizens in the University environment, while the way the University chooses to operate is detrimental to the educational experience of local students. Parking permits are nearly impossible to obtain. For some, this financial obligation of travelling is too much and has led to several local students dropping out and transferring to other local universities, such as Teesside, where the student population is more reflective of themselves.
Until real change is made, Durham will be a university which simply does not reflect their local population. The life-changing opportunities that so many experience at Durham is not being afforded to those who are local, simply because of systemic prejudice at all levels of the University which permeates through both staff and students. I fear that Durham will continue to be an incredibly non-inclusive university and that the student population will simply never be reflective of the local community which the University boasts they are so proud to be a part of.
I am grateful that I am one of few who has continued to study at Durham. Hopefully, if more students like myself come forward and speak of their experience, the University will have no option but to change.
Image: Mark Norton