University and the working class

Is the culture at some universities deterring working class students?


© David Michael Morris


Finding A levels fairly easy; I was able to manage achieving good grades, with an extra evening course, working in a shop at the weekends and going out a lot. The work load was fine and I was confident in my ability.

Going to university, I was excited. I didn’t fear the academic work at all. That was, at least until I arrived. Then my confidence diminished. I remember one of the first people I met was a descendent of William Gladstone, while I came from a steel town.

At one of my first tutorials, I remember a boy pretentiously announcing that he had read every single one of George Orwell’s books. I had barely picked up a book since weekly reading was compulsory in primary school. I now recognise that he was probably feeling just as unsure of himself as I and was using this claim to overcompensate for whatever he felt he were lacking. At the time however, I failed to pick up this guise of this, and instead, I feared that everyone else in the room was just as well read as he.

On another occasion, in a tutorial about elitism in politics, the tutor asked all fifteen students to say which class we thought we were, I was one of only two who said ‘working class.’

My confidence was decreasing and I was fearing life at university because I was allowing myself to feel inferior to people who had more privileged backgrounds than myself.

Looking back now, only 2 years later, I’m shocked by how easily I allowed myself to question my own ability. After all, we had all gained places on the course due to our A Level grades, so I was just as competent as the others.

My point here, is that going to university, particularly a Russell Group university, known for having a higher percentage of students from both private and grammar schools is a daunting enough experience for anyone who comes from a working class background.

Going from a town where it was uncool to be clever, you were popular for hanging about outside shops drinking under-age and where you gained respect for being cheeky to teachers, it was hard to suddenly acclimatise to a new world – a world where people openly enjoyed reading and other ‘geeky’ pursuits, where people went skiing regularly, had wine cellars worth more than your average house and whose parents were buddies with the likes of Hugh Grant and Quentin Tarantino.

These privileged students shouldn’t feel guilty for what they were born into, and that is certainly not what I am trying to do, I’m merely trying to demonstrate the challenges of going to a ‘good’ university from a not-so-privileged-background.

As I said, this was two years ago, before the announcement of £9,000 tuition fees. As so many other left leaner’s have commented, this will only worsen the problem of elitism in universities. The experience I have discussed is only going to become more common as the ‘good’ universities become over run by those who don’t mind having such high levels of debt. Those from less well off backgrounds, regardless of their ability are likely to choose cheaper universities, which we all know, aren’t choosing to charge less than the £9,000 out of moral reasoning, more because they cannot compete with the top universities in the number of experts or rigour,  given this, there concede their position and charge less.

What does this mean? A high number of capable students, who, had they been a year or so earlier would have had no financial reasoning behind their applications, and so would have applied to Russell Group universities. Instead, this year they will be seeking universities with lower tuition fees and therefore ending up settling for an old polytechnic, despite their academic ability putting them way beyond this. I am not saying there is anything wrong with an ‘old polytechnic’ university, what I am saying, is, it is wrong for someone who is academically capable of going to a top university to end up at university which is not challenging enough for them based on the grounds that it is charging less.

The tuition fees are creating a marketplace in which, grades still count to gain acceptance, but, the demographics of those applying will be changing as those from working class backgrounds are put off by the high fees and are therefore weaned out. As the application demographics change, naturally, the demographics of the intake will also change, which is only going to prop up the pompous, middle class culture that I spoke of earlier.

Proponents of the new higher tuition fees will say “but they’ll get a loan which they don’t have to pay back until they earn over x amount,” suggesting that the new fees will not harm those from less well off backgrounds. A) How do they know this? Proponents of the higher tuition fees aren’t usually students, they don’t have a clue how the students will react and B) nor do they understand the  significance of value of £9,000 to someone from a town where the average before tax income is £18,000.

Even if the new higher tuition fees don’t have such a damaging effect on those from less well off backgrounds as I fear, and say, many teenagers from working class backgrounds still go on to apply to Russell Groups, and say they do get in, they will undoubtedly still be a minority as I was in the tutorial I spoke of.  They will experience the type of pompous attitudes that I have mentioned, which will remain dominant, making the whole process very daunting.

Do we really want capable students being put off by the pompous culture in many of our top universities?

I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten in, by that’s besides the point, I purposely chose not to apply to Oxbridge, despite meeting the A level criteria, because I knew I would feel out of place. The issue is partly with myself, I shouldn’t have cared about the affluence of the students there, but it’s also with the institution of university for allowing such a culture to flourish. I can’t help but think that the new higher tuition fees will only worsen this sorry state of pomposity at Britain’s top universities.


Beth Miller is a student of International Relations and Politics, currently spending the year on exchange at The University of Hong Kong.