The damage of the Durham stereotype

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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.

The Durham stereotype creates an invisible but ever-present line between students and locals

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.

Over a third of Durham students may have attended independent schools, but what does that really tells us about them as people?

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.

5 thoughts on “The damage of the Durham stereotype

  • I think what’s actually sad about this article’s sentiment is that the Palatinate, and other student newspapers that have since come and gone, have published versions of the same article over the last 15 years.

    It’s a damning indictment of the leadership of this university that the problem has gone untackled for so long.

    No more lip service.

    Reply
    • What should the leadership do in this situation? It’s a tricky one isn’t it as most of the stereotyping I imagine takes place outside the university itself.

      Reply
    • 15 years? This was the stereotype of the Durham student when I was here 30 years ago. Nothing ever changes.

      Reply
  • As someone who attended Durham University myself recently, I am in partial agreement with this writer and also think that the issue needs to be further unpacked. Calls to “end” harmful stereotyping of Durham students as hyper- privileged and insular will likely achieve little while institutions and individuals that perpetuate elitism throughout the student body maintain their notable stake in student life.

    For example, it’s fine and well to say that “we should stop treating the city as a term time residence and start treating it as a home”, but what would this look like in practice? And why until now have such a high percentage of Durham students not managed to do so successfully? Social spaces like college bars and student-led societies and sports teams (which are a massive part of Durham life) are exclusive by nature, and the cosseted feel of collegiate life can seem jarringly far-removed from life outside, County Durham having one of the highest poverty rates in the country. It’s not surprising with many students coming straight from boarding school that a city with its own culture and range of sociopolitical problems seems to often get treated more like a term-time playground.

    I would also push back against the claim that DUCK and other charity efforts within Durham University are engineered for the benefit of Durham’s local community. From my experience, they more often fundraised to take students on exotic adventures to the other side of the world, the most evident example being the ostensibly altruistic fashion show, which in my day at least was organised predominantly by boarding school cliques and prohibitively expensive to attend. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this phenomenon.

    It’s certainly possible to form entire friendship groups and networks of down-to-Earth people at Durham, who do not conform to the moneyed and out-of-touch stereotype. Also, the comment that Durham’s lack of diversity and multiculturalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, with students from ethnic minorities or low income backgrounds feeling discouraged from applying to a university with a perceived hostile community towards them, highlights the chicken-and-egg nature of Durham’s often-pointed-out whiteness.

    I think more practical effort and work would need to go into dispelling the Durham stereotype, perhaps through more student societies focusing connection with locals or social spaces like Empty Shop or Jam Jah at Alington House (both closed down now I think) where locals and students attend events together.

    Enough ranting for one day, I’ll get back to attempting to become employed. Interesting discussion. 🙂

    Reply
  • A wrong depiction of the black-tie convention by undoubtedly talented Xiaoyao Yin – not only the shirt is off-white and the signet ring is on the wrong hand and (the crime of all crimes!) is on the RING FINGER, but the watch strap is of BROWN leather! My serious point though is that the article itself seems to be full of highly subjective generalisations and steteotypical assumptions that, in truth, are as far from reality, as their artistic representation!

    Reply

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