Stat(e)ing the obvious: Durham’s elitist reputation

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If Durham proportionately represented the UK population, only 7% of you reading this should have been educated at a fee-paying school. Yet, by simply taking a stroll around the TLC or overhearing conversations in Market Place Tesco, it is not difficult to conclude that Durham is not at all representative of the UK population. There is literally an Instagram page dedicated to spotting Durham ‘rahs’ clad in Schöffels and tweed – and the content is pretty regular. Therefore, is it any surprise that recent figures show Durham boasts the lowest percentage of state-educated students of any UK Russell Group University? Did many jaws drop when it was revealed that only 61.6% of Durham students attended state schools?

I think it is necessary to demonstrate exactly why Durham doesn’t offer an enticing university experience to those of us who weren’t educated surrounded by matrons, grand architecture, or offerings of Latin. Durham provides the perfect extension of boarding school; catered colleges with three meals a day consumed in grand dining halls perfectly mirrors the daily routine of a boarder. My experience at a North East comprehensive school couldn’t have been more at odds with this; lunch was the only meal eaten at school and this we consumed in a glorified corridor on bright red and yellow tables before being bundled out of the gates at 14.45 sharp. Imagine my surprise when I first stepped into Castle Great Hall.

Durham’s reputation is clouded in elitism

Of course, I am skirting around the obvious large issues of formals, akin I imagine to house dinners, and the colleges themselves, a large-scale interpretation of boarding houses. The unique culture of Durham is a world away from underfunded state education, punctuated by a Year 11 prom and a crowded Sixth-Form common room if you’re lucky. And so, is it any surprise that the niche traditions of Durham, those that attract privately educated students, are the very things that deter students from state schools? 

Unless you have managed to evade the TikTok algorithm, you will have witnessed how poorly, albeit accurately, Durham is represented. On a platform used by many prospective students as an unofficial form of research, simply searching #Durham confronts you with videos of students clad in polo quarter zips, an overuse of the phrase “I’m very lucky I went to a nice school” sound and intensive documentation of white tie events. 

To add even more fuel to Durham’s fire, it is notoriously poorly presented by national media outlets. Rod Liddle’s comments last December painted Durham University as intolerant and backwards while ’s report on prejudice towards Northern accents in 2020 demonstrated the myopic biases of Durham students themselves. Unsurprisingly then, students who differ from the typical Durham ‘rah’ cut their losses and choose a uni without a plethora of classist scandals and an inability to adequately discipline those who perpetuate them.

Social privilege demanded at Durham is evident from the outset

This all begs the question: what steps can Durham take to reform its image and appear more accessible to state school students? In truth, I have little hope for any policy Durham has the capacity or desire to implement. Despite forming an Access and Admissions sub-committee of the Senate in 2018, Durham is admitting fewer state school students than before this was created. At a more practical level, the University has undoubtedly invested in access events and opportunities for prospective students. The Supported Progression programme allows state-educated students to spend time at Durham, working towards a reduced offer, a Durham-specific programme that runs alongside Sutton Trust summer schools. 

The admissions team themselves have acknowledged the need for further work on acceptance and inclusion in their Access and Participation Plan 2020/21 to 2024/25, promising to create an environment ‘in which any individual or group can feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued’. But I propose the question: how much difference can these policies make when Durham’s reputation is clouded in elitism and a lack of acceptance? Perhaps more meaningful and personalised outreach into schools to fight against the Durham stereotype could be beneficial. But if a prospective student asked me if Durham is elitist, I would have no choice but to reply with ‘yes’. 

The financial, cultural, and social privilege demanded at Durham is evident from the outset, and until the University takes active steps to reform its image, the number of state-school applicants will continue to stagnate. 

Image: Jonny Gios via Unsplash

6 thoughts on “Stat(e)ing the obvious: Durham’s elitist reputation

  • “And so, is it any surprise that the niche traditions of Durham, those that attract privately educated students, are the very things that deter students from state schools?” – Isn’t it rather patronising to suggest that state school students are intimidated or offput by tradition and grandeur?

    Reply
    • Not at all. State schools are not traditional, grand seats of learning like Eton, Harrow etc. The culture they perpetuate (and the culture that is to a large extent carried over in Universities like Durham) is entirely different to the culture of normal state schools. To suggest that a state school student could attend Durham and be at no less of a disadvantage than their privately educated peers is nothing more than a Thatcherite myth.

      Reply
      • Why should state school students not be as capable as anyone else of learning and joining in?

        Obviously, someone who comes from a background where formal dining is common will be more comfortable at first, but there is no reason why someone cannot learn. I am from a pit town in the North East and went to a boarding school on a scholarship. I learned, and anyone else can too. There are wonderful resources available online to learn anything you might need to know about traditions like black tie or formal dining – sites like the Gentleman’s Gazette or YouTubers like Kirby Allison, for instance.

        So many of the student activists are militant in insisting upon our learning about other cultures and ways of doing things, and yet seem completely opposed to traditions which have existed at universities like Durham for centuries. The discrepancy simply demonstrates what we all know – these students have chips on their shoulder.

        Reply
      • Or, more accurately, the culture that developed (and continues) at the older universities is one that was in fact historically created by the public school system and its products in its own image to satisfy its needs. The products of the public school system went on the the universities and created a social order that was modelled on the things they already knew, in their own image.

        Things like the nature of matriculation, formal dining, even the conduct of JCR meetings were much more familiar and obvious to those who’d come through similar systems during their school life. For those of us who had not there were all these rather more intangible things to assimilate on top of the academic. You can call places like Eton and Harrow “grand seats of learning” if you like, but in the end they are just schools: expensive, better resourced and incredibly socially exclusive schools admittedly, but schools nonetheless. There may academically be little difference between the public school and the state candidate, but we all know there were marked differences that conferred other, distinct advantages to one of those groups. But we ploughed on and took them on board anyway, even if our opinion of them was rather more jaundiced and less romantic than others.

        For people to claim that there is no element of cultural gatekeeping going on is at best naive, and at worst positively disingenuous.

        Reply
        • Nobody denies the origin of such traditions – what we deny is that students who did not go to Eton, Harrow, etc. cannot enjoy and benefit from participating in these traditions.

          Again, the opposition to these traditions stems from a dislike of the culture those traditions are regarded as synonymous with. They’re obsessed with multiculturalism, as long as it excludes our culture.

          Reply
      • Lawrence, I don’t understand your contention. That the challenge of being introduced to a new ‘culture’ is simply too much for state educated students to bare? I don’t get it.

        Reply

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