By Sam Lake
The Durham student stereotype is as self-perpetuating as it is unfair. Though it is true that Durham has its fair share of students who fit the image of the privileged and condescending Oxbridge reject, possessing only a shred of respect for anyone but themselves, tarnishing the whole student body with the same brush only perpetuates the problem.
Whilst there are serious issues to be addressed regarding the University’s culture, highlighted once again by the vile messages leaked at the start of the last academic year, we shouldn’t allow the actions and attitudes of a vocal few, often hailing from a particular social milieu, to sully the names of the many.
I would be the first to admit, as a working-class scouser, that I have faced difficulties assimilating into a student body that seems overwhelmingly southern and middle class. I can imagine many students, particularly those with ethnic minority backgrounds, feel the same. After all, only 40 black students were taken on in 2019 and walking around Durham it is visibly a very white University. These are issues that demand attention in their own right and should be separated, where possible, from a discussion of the harmful repercussions of such a rigid stereotype as exists for Durham.
The Durham stereotype creates an invisible yet ever-present line between students and locals, one that makes interactions between the two groups a minefield of misunderstandings. Unspoken assumptions are made about one another — a self-fulfilling prophecy of mutual scepticism.
The same can be said for applicants to Durham. It is understandably difficult to apply to a university where you expect to feel alienated. Whilst it is a personal example, my greatest source of apprehension when applying to Durham was the prospect of being the odd one-out, of not fitting in in a place dominated by the wealthy and the privately educated. But though there have undoubtedly been difficulties, largely down to the restricted scope of social networks over the last year, I have met enough people like me to know that the stereotype is greatly exaggerated. Paradoxically, if we want the ‘typical Durham student’ to change, we need to stop talking as though there is one.
Statistics can only tell us so much — yes, over a third of Durham students may have attended independent schools, but what does that really tell us about them as people? Refusing to take someone at face value due to a background they have no control over only sows division and leads to social segregation — this is true both ways.
There are plenty of good people at Durham — as is clear to see for anyone taking notice of the work done by Durham’s charity committee, DUCK, whose work with local charities is hardly suggestive of a student body that doesn’t care about its wider community.
But we ourselves have more work to do. Local ire is entirely understandable. It is borne, however, of an image projected by a certain group of students whose actions, though highly visible, are not representative of the majority. Both the University and its students should be encouraging newcomers to Durham to embrace the city as a local community, of which the University is a part, and not the other way around.
Freps should not be telling freshers to stay away from North Road as though it were a wild west — in reality, its only fault is that it is one of the few places in the city centre where the University doesn’t loom large. Complaining about a stereotype will only get us so far; if we want to be rid of it, we must prove it to be invalid.
Durham’s stereotype is a complex one — both in its origins and its implications, neither of which this article can hope to comprehensively address. It will be a long while before it is shaken off. Maybe it never will be. Yet only by recognising that the issue is one of engagement can we hope to work towards that outcome. Durham students may not be bad people, but they have unfortunately done little to showcase this to locals.
For as long as the students here remain isolated within the university bubble, the image of them as the toffee-nosed youth of the cultural elite will remain the norm, encouraged as it is by the rambunctious nature of those who hail from such circles. If staying in Durham this summer has taught me anything, it is that we should stop treating the city as a term-time residence and start treating it as a home. Only then can the line between student and local ever be breached.
Illustration: Xiaoyao Yin.