Features | The truth about social class at uni

We might think University is a blank slate where we can start afresh, but our upbringing and background count for more than you might think. LS investigates the thorny issue of class.


In a novel by the 19th century writer and politician Benjamin Disraeli, a working class radical warns the protagonist that in Britain there is not one, but “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets…The Rich and the Poor”.

Although debates about tax rates for the few and low pay for the many still convulse our political masters, social class today is no longer the economic straightjacket it was for Victorian Britons. However, when I spoke to Harriet, Vanessa, Jessica, Richard and James*, all students at the University of Leeds, it soon became clear that while we might not stick rigidly by the old working/middle/upper class structure, where we come from still matters a lot to students, even in 2014.

Vanessa, a second year Politics and Parliamentary Studies student, says she thinks of herself as working class. “I’m conscious of it. Especially when talking about things like holidays, or when people’s parents are paying for things for them, or discussing our parents’ jobs”. Harriet, a first year International Development student, agrees. “Neither of my parents went into higher education. Their jobs are not as… I don’t want to say “good” but neither of them are on over £24k… I’ve not been on holiday outside of Europe”. But, in contrast to traditional ideas of class as something you inherit, these students have a more ambivalent view of what it means for them. “I wouldn’t say I’m conscious of my class, more my upbringing”, says Richard, a first year Politics student.

“I am aware of it, but it’s not something that I would like to think defines me”, says Jessica, a third year History student. “In my family, I’m the first to do A levels and go to university, [and] my parents work blue collar jobs.” Wrenched from the parental nest and thrown into cohabitation with complete strangers, university is for many people a chance to create a new identity.

I was amazed by the Very Hungry Caterpillar-esque metamorphosis of a friend of mine from inoffensive home-counties pupae to fully-fledged, incorrigible triple-denim hipster in a matter of weeks. But leaving our dodgy fashion sense in the faded seaside hometowns or North London suburbs of our youth might prove easier than escaping the influences of our social class. “I feel like my northern and ‘common’ accent might lead people to believe that I’m stupid, or at least less intelligent”, Vanessa told LS.

This divide is not just about regional accents. “In my first year of university I fell into a financially affluent circle of friends – it wouldn’t be uncommon for them to eat out in town at least once a week, go shopping at weekends, or join the more expensive societies such as Polo”, says Jessica. “Financially I just couldn’t keep up and had to decline invitations out, and consequently drifted out of the group”. Harriet raises the issue of the notorious Varsity chants. “I felt extremely uncomfortable being part of the crowd that was shouting ‘Leeds Met, we pay your benefits’ when I’ve received a lot of help from the government throughout uni and A-levels”.

Class hats

In 2011, 27.1 per cent of undergraduates entering Leeds University were from private schools, a 0.3 per cent drop from the previous year, but 11 Russell Group universities actually increased their proportion of privately educated pupils. Nationally, 11.1 per cent of students going into higher education were from private schools and at Leeds Met it was just 7 per cent.

Another way of measuring class is looking at students’ ‘socioeconomic classification’, otherwise known as ‘what their mums and dads do’, from ‘Higher professional and managerial’ jobs, down to ‘Never worked and long-term unemployed’. The University uses the percentage of students from the lowest four classifications to see how many working class students it is recruiting. This year it was just over 22 per cent, a 2 per cent rise from two years ago but a fall from 23 per cent five years ago. In the UK the most recent data shows that almost 31 per cent of students came from these less well off backgrounds, and at Leeds Met it was 32.5 per cent of students.

Clearly, working class students are underrepresented at Leeds, but at least the University plans to do something about it. They hope to raise the number of working-class students to 24 per cent using schemes such as Access to Leeds. This allows less stringent A level entry requirements for students who meet certain criteria, such as coming from a family with an income of less than £25,000, being the first generation of their family apply to higher education, being from an area where few go to university, or attending a poorly performing school. 623 people successfully took up a place at Leeds under this scheme over the past three years, about 2 per cent of all those who applied to it.

One of those people was Augusta, a third year Politics student. “It’s a great idea”, she says. “People who went to my school didn’t receive as many resources or as much attention as students from more affluent schools, so their grades are not always truly reflective of their intelligence”. It would be easy to criticise the stop-start progress of the University in recruiting more working class students, but the problem is massive. According to the Office for Fair Access, a government body, 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are three times more likely to go to university than those from the most disadvantaged areas and 7.5 times more likely to go to a top university. As the Director General of the Russell Group put it in 2012, “Universities themselves do not have the power to solve the root causes of the under representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

Ultimately, dealing with such intractable problems, which are rooted in lack of education investment, decline of traditional industrial areas and a failed social safety net, is the job of the Government, although whether they have the energy and political will to do so is far from clear. The Universities Minister, David Willetts, has refused to rule out cutting the Student Opportunity Fund, a £200m pot of cash for universities that recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, a move the president of the NUS has warned would be “an absolute disgrace”. Everybody knows the Jack Whitehall/Jack Wills upper middle-class stereotype, which is obviously a simplification but is so pervasive because it strikes so close to home.

Universities Minister, David Willetts. Image property of The Guardian.
Universities Minister, David Willetts. Image property of The Guardian.

“In general I’ve found the wealthier background a student has come from, the more likely they are to take risks and the less conscious of the consequences of their actions they are, which can even translate to a proclivity to recreational drug use and excessive drinking”, says James. ‘The more sensible people I’ve met tend to have less disposable income and hence a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis of their actions’. ‘I feel disadvantaged compared to [richer students]’, says Harriet, “because in the bigger scheme of things they have more ability to do things, because they come from wealth”.

“Some experiences are only available to classes with a more financially secure background”, agrees Jessica. “The people who seem most able to travel are usually those from a more affluent background”.

Students’ relationship with class is a complicated one. For some people, financial resources are a real barrier to doing the things others take for granted. Being exposed to widely different upbringings and attitudes can reinforce a feeling of difference, but this doesn’t mean we feel the need to take on the class labels that our parents assumed, or perhaps even cherished. Indeed, coming to university, says James, has “strengthened my opinion that people within a certain income bracket do not have a predetermined identity”. It remains to be seen whether those whose circumstances conspired against them progressing to university, particularly from poor areas, feel the same – even Prime Minister, Disraeli never managed to reconcile his two nations. I wonder how long it will be until we can bridge ours.

*Some names in this article have been changed

Tom Follett

Illustration: Lily Dessau

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