By Poppy Askham
Students shared experiences of classism and alienation at Durham University in a live-stream discussion organised by the Socialist Think Tank. The event held on 15th April aimed to raise awareness of the widespread nature of elitism within the staff and student body.
Five current Durham students highlighted the prominence of issues such as accent-based prejudice, ‘poverty fetishization’ and lack of representation for students from northern and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. More than 37% of students admitted to Durham in 2020-21 were pupils from independent fee-paying schools, despite 93% of UK secondary school students studying at state-funded institutions.
Abusive commenters targeted the event, culminating in a string of racist slurs and offensive messages towards the end of the discussion. Socialist Think-Tank later tweeted: “we don’t mind a bit of argument but will not accept discrimination” and published an edited version of the discussion.
The live-streamed discussion follows the publication of an open letter to Durham’s Sociology department by second-year student Lucy Milburn-Greenwood. The letter, which received 100 signatures, called for lecturers to promote working-class writers and invite them to the University as guest speakers. It also suggested that classism be integrated into active bystander training during fresher’s week.
During the event, hosted by Chairman of the Sedgefield Constitutional Labour Party, Paul Daly, panellists drew attention to the culture shock experienced by first-year students on arrival at Durham.
Second-year English Literature student, Aoifke Madeline explained that she felt that traditions like formals were at first “quite isolating” experiences that she felt weren’t “meant for me or people like me.” She also described an “us-versus-them” culture, highlighting problematic ‘town-gown’ divisions.
“I think imposter syndrome is so big at Durham because you end up trying to live this double life, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, noted President of the Working-class Society, Jamie Halliwell.
He went on to add that often students experiencing classism find it hard to access help and report incidents. However, he did note that an increasing number of colleges were instating working-class student representatives and that the Student Union is “turning away from being an old boys’ club”. Second-year student, Kelsi Leigh Wright also praised the work of first-generation scholar groups in helping to promote a sense of solidarity for students from under-represented backgrounds.
The panellists, all of whom have part-time jobs, also discussed the stigma faced by students who work alongside their studies. Third-year Van Mildert student Jack Lines explained the shame he had felt after a photo taken of him at work was mockingly shared on social media by members of his college.
Lines also illustrated that discriminatory behaviour is not exclusive to the student body. He described an incident in which a lecturer publicly mimicked his accent during a seminar which left him “feeling quite small”.
Despite their experiences, all the panellists said that they would not change their decision to go to Durham University, and urged other working-class students not to be discouraged. Lines acknowledged that instances of discrimination caused significant pain but told prospective students that “sometimes you have to be your own representation”, explaining that “you have to be strong in that respect”.
Reflecting on the event, Milburn-Greenwood told Palatinate, “hopefully this is the start of a big culture change for Durham University”.
“Durham is heavily a traditional working-class area, and this should be respected and uplifted”, she stated, calling for “the celebration of working-class students not dismissals of them” and for a greater acknowledgement of individuals’ privileges.
She thanked Socialist Think Tank and her fellow student panellists, concluding with a message for prospective northern and/or working-class students: “I would really encourage you to still attend Durham University as an important way of reducing elitism is for more students like ourselves to be in such a prestigious higher education route”.
“Changes are being made, and there are people who will look out for you”, she explained. “If anyone would like to reach out for a chat, my email is: firstname.lastname@example.org”.
Last year, a report by Van Mildert student, Lauren White, alleged that physical and verbal abuse against Northern students is a widespread issue at Durham University. Students from the North of England described feeling unwelcome at the University, and in some cases, felt forced to live at home during their studies or drop out of Durham.
Since the report was published, the University has implemented a new Student Pledge which includes ‘background’ as a form of discrimination.
Image: Mark Norton