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.
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 Lauren White’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.
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