Why aren’t more working-class students at Durham?

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Palatinate published data this week showing that eight times as many students from the wealthiest areas were admitted to Durham University than those from the most disadvantaged areas over the last five years. This would be a major embarrassment for any university, but especially for one based in the heart of an area with a rich history of coal mining and a huge working-class population. This is clearly an issue which must be addressed soon, but who, and what, exactly is to blame?

Support for disadvantaged students isn’t offered by the university

As a fresher from a distinctly working-class area (specifically Wednesbury, a post-industrial town in the West Midlands), I have first-hand experience with the support offered to applicants in so-called ‘deprived areas’. The most impactful and helpful assistance I received wasn’t from the university itself, but non-profit organisations who provide support, often on behalf of universities, including Durham.

The summer school in Durham – organised and run by The Sutton Trust –  which I attended last summer was my first true introduction to the university, and sparked my interest in applying (I wish I could say it let me experience the city, but this was during peak Covid-19 times so we were Zoom-bound). Frankly, it’s a bad look for Durham that this support for disadvantaged students isn’t offered by the university itself, but by a non-profit.

The university itself does offer support to working-class applicants (often in the form of reduced grade requirements, known as a ‘contextual offer’) and this, combined with the fantastic work of non-profits with the endorsement of the university, shows that the university is somewhat trying to increase its intake from disadvantaged areas. Although they shoulder some of the blame (does this support really go far enough?), I can’t simply point the finger at the university administration and say that they’re solely to blame.

Durham specifically still stands out as one of the worst

A point I’d like to stress is that this isn’t a case of working-class people don’t go to university. Although the numbers are still lower for disadvantaged students – 27.9% of the most disadvantaged students went to university last year, compared to 58.3% of the least disadvantaged – they are much better than they used to be. Durham specifically still stands out as one of the worst universities in the country for intake of disadvantaged students, with just 25 (yes, twenty-five) new students last year being from ‘low university participation’ neighbourhoods. The issue isn’t that working-class people aren’t going to university, it’s that they’re not going to Durham University.

Although the university itself can only take part of the blame for the issue, there’s another problem that they have a responsibility to do something about: Durham’s image. It’s hard to deny that Durham has a bit of a reputation of being ‘posh’ and ‘snobby’, something which has been done no favours by recent reports of archaic (and dangerous) initiation ceremonies, and last year’s reports that some students were competing to have sex with the ‘poorest girl on campus’.

Durham has a reputation of being a bit ‘snobby’ and ‘posh’

Of course, all of this concerned me as a university applicant last year; I accepted my offer regardless, mostly based on my affection for the city and Durham’s prestige. Since I started here a month ago, my worries about how I’d fit in at Durham have disappeared, as I’ve realised that it’s not as posh here as it’s often made out to be, but the image of the university to outsiders – and particularly potential applicants – remains an issue. Intelligent working-class students are certainly going to university, but they’re simply choosing not to come to Durham.

In this article, I’ve only really covered the tip of the iceberg of a very complex issue. There are countless other factors at play that influence the big ‘eight to one’ statistic. For example the Government’s neglect of state schools was worsened following the pandemic, when cash-strapped schools had to make countless compromises to keep things running. Costs of university have furthermore climbed to a concerning level and students’ (in Durham’s case, those outside of the North East) want to stay local, and not leave their friends and families. However, the reality is that intelligent students (of which there are many) from disadvantaged backgrounds are not attending Durham in the numbers you’d expect.

Frankly, I can’t say I blame them; why would the people of Wednesbury want to attend a university seemingly tailored towards the people of Windsor?

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