Durham University has always been regarded as a prestigious institution, where students of high socio-economic status reside and thrive. The University‘s reputation had always been made clear to me as a local student. Four years on from the Trevelyan College Rugby Club’s ‘Miners Vs Bobbies’ social, not much has changed.
However, it only really impacted me after joining the university as a Northern and working-class person. The class divides and cultural divisions immediately stood out and I found myself at a crossroads. What was my identity and how did I want to present myself to my fellow students?
The rife classism at Durham University first became apparent during freshers week. Fellow students questioned the value of my part-time job and suggested that I should give it up if I wanted to do well at University, not understanding that I needed a monthly income. Among other things, at my first formal, a freshers‘ rep questioned whether it made for an interesting ‘dynamic’ to have the same accent as our waiters and asked what my parents did for a living. Perhaps most damaging was having my contributions dismissed during lectures/seminars simply because of my heavily Northern accent.
This discrimination began to change my perspective. After attending a lecture from Kerry Hudson (a working-class author), I felt empowered to make a stand. This led to an open letter to my department (sociology) about the inclusivity of Northern and working-class students, which received so much backing. I’m still currently in talks on feasible solutions, but most of these surround improving visibility for and education about Durham’s traditional working-class heritage at the University.
In recognition of this, I contacted Aoifke Madeleine, who recently had an article published surrounding her treatment as a Northern, working-class student. Alongside other students, we were invited to a live event on Socialist Think-Tank. We discussed elitism within the University and how it has impacted each of us. We covered our experiences, any notable action from the University, what we have done to tackle this issue and what our experiences have taught us about privilege. It was an amazing experience to be able to discuss and shed light on the current situation and to feel so much support behind us.
Aoifke said about her experiences: “When looking up universities to apply to, Durham was consistently in the top spot for English Literature. With a history similar to my hometown, it seemed like a good university to attend. However, since being here, I have experienced prejudice against my Northern accent and state-school background.
In seminars, people would snigger at how I sounded and often I would be the only person with a Northern accent in a room dominated by southern and private-school kids. Studying a subject like English comes with inherent problems of accessibility. At my Northern state school, we didn’t have access to many of the classics, meaning I have far less cultural capital than my peers. As other students have parents who studied my subject at grand universities, I have had to constantly play catch-up in my reading and general understanding of literature. Many others had this all at their fingertips before they came to university.
I’ve been ridiculed for not having read a certain book and had people remark in disbelief that I haven’t heard of a poet, ‘How can you not have heard of xyz? But you study English?‘. It feels like not only the university as a whole, but also its faculties, do not support the progression of state school students into spaces like this. Instances of exclusion and isolation that I have experienced at Durham are vast. It is often a daily occurrence.
If it wasn’t for Lauren White’s report on the experiences of Northern students, I would have never been able to speak about my experiences. The report really validated how I had felt throughout my time at the university and gave me the confidence to speak with my normal accent in seminars rather than feeling the need to change it to fit in.
I spoke to ‘The Tab’ about my experiences of Northern discrimination recently. Off the back of that, Lucy invited me to speak with her and others on ‘Socialist Think Tank’ about the issue. It is clear from these discussions that the University needs to not only change the culture inherent in its institution by accepting more working-class, state-educated students, but also ensure that there is support for these students whilst they’re here. I’m so thankful that these conversations are being had and I want to improve the situation for current and future students who have a similar background to, and sound like, me.
In line with the report of the treatment of Northern students, as well as mine and Aoifke’s experiences – the university needs to do better as a whole. This could be achieved in a multitude of ways. Educating students about classism as part of freshers‘ week, being active in the wider education community within Durham City and creating visibility of working-class culture at the University would all have a huge impact. Above all, they must simply acknowledge that this is a real issue that needs to be fixed.
The system needs reforming to truly tackle this elitist culture. We need a change in individual attitudes. With the lowest proportion of local students in the UK, and 37.8% of Durham students being privately educated, it is clear something is wrong. Durham is a county with strong working-class roots. Students with similar roots need to be celebrated, rather than dismissed. This is the start of that.
Image: James Stringer via Flickr