“There Was Nothing For People Who Came From a Working-Class Background”: Catheryne Sturgess-Fairbairn on Setting Up A Society For Lower-Class Students

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Despite their visible drives towards inclusivity and diversity, university campuses are no stranger to excluding working-class students. Buildings named after members of elite families, expensive shops and disparate accommodations are just a few of the features of university life which can make students from low-income backgrounds feel like they don’t belong at their chosen institute of learning. But is Leeds any different in this trend? I met with Catheryne Sturgess-Fairbairn, a 2nd year politics student at the University of Leeds to find out her thoughts.

Catheryne is looking to establish a working-class society at Leeds University Union in order to better represent working-class students, create a network where they feel included, and improve the opportunities they have access to. Asking about the main aims of the society, as well as the practical elements of such a venture, Catheryne was reflective as well as optimistic. “The main aim of the society would be to provide a network for working-class students because there isn’t one on campus. When I came to university, I felt really isolated compared to where I come from because in Sunderland everyone has the same sort of life experiences – I came to university and felt completely separate from the majority of the people that I met. I saw that there were networks for, for example, disabled people, women, LGBT people, all different sub-groups of people, but I found that there was nothing for people who came from a working-class background”. 

“The society would be completely free to join, which is one of the key principles: its accessibility. We would try to get funding for the society to keep it as cheap as possible, try to provide opportunities that working-class people might not get otherwise, and hopefully get people to come to the university to do workshops with the society. Socials would be a very important part of the society because they would mean people from a working-class background can get to know others who are like them. There wouldn’t be any expensive socials happening unless they get fully funded by the Union.”

It’s a simple idea: providing a space where students from low-income backgrounds can socialise without feeling like they’re breaking the bank in order to do so. But Catheryne insists that it’s more important than simply improving your social life. “This society would be very important for working-class students because it would provide support. A lot of working-class students drop out of university quite early on because it’s nowhere near what school or college was like; a lot of them don’t feel like they fit in. I know that I had to get over that quite quickly when I came to university because I saw other working-class students dropping out like flies around me, going back home and getting apprenticeships and jobs, and that’s not something I wanted to do. This society would help people stay at university which is, of course, important for the university. As an institution which needs to be profitable in order to survive, the university is predominantly interested in maintaining its profit margins, but they could generate a lot more profit if those students were encouraged to stay rather than to drop out because of social anxieties. 

“It’s important for Leeds University Union too. I’m very involved in the Union affairs, I’m a liberation coordinator, a women’s liberation coordinator and president of the Feminist Society and often I find these roles to be very middleclass. The people I’m surrounded by, the events we’re putting on and those we are targeting them at – it’s middleclass, and that’s a feature of the Union that I’ve noticed since arriving here. There is no working-class representation, but there is so much representation for BME students, LGBT students, disabled students, female students, mature students, international students, part-time students – it’s amazing to see, because those networks are so important and I am part of a few of them, but there is nothing for what is arguably the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged group on campus which is working-class students.”

This lack of representation for working-class students has been something the Union has been trying to resolve this year, with Tamsin Scott, the Equality and Diversity officer at LUU, attempting to identify and dismantle the barriers working-class students face when coming to Leeds. But change is always a slow process, and perhaps this is where Catheryne’s frustration comes from. As President of the LUU Feminist Society, Catheryne recounts numerous instances of discussions where working-class concerns are continually disregarded. “We had a discussion recently on ‘are private schools a feminist issue?’ and the discussion got circular with privately-educated students talking of how awful their experiences were and trying to compare them to state schools. The discussion was full of privilege. The inspiration for this society came from the shock I felt from moving from my school in Newcastle to Leeds University: I thought they would be very similar, especially because Leeds is in the north, but it was a huge culture shock. I and a few of my working-class friends (there aren’t very many of them) were very frustrated at the lack of representation, and we thought of the idea to set this society up.”

For many, university culture can be an expensive one, and working-class students often find themselves financially excluded from a lot of the things most students take for granted. “Working-class students do generally get bigger maintenance loans, which does help, but, for example, a night at Beaverworks can cost upwards of ten pounds which is too much (and ridiculous, because all the clubs at home are free). All your friends talk about going on holiday together and you can’t afford it, or talk about gap years they went on or places they went with their school – small things like that make you feel excluded. 20% of students at Leeds University are privately educated compared to 7% of the whole population – and that doesn’t include the many international students who are privately educated as well. I think all this creates a culture of hostility and inaccessibility for working-class students.”

The general cost of opportunities to extend and expand your studies is yet another barrier working-class students can face. “One thing I’ve noticed about university is that middle-class students have access to all the opportunities that the university promotes, most of which include having a lot of money in your bank account. For example, volunteering abroad: I’ve seen people go to Fiji, to India, to Africa, and all of that requires having a lot of money back at home. I looked into doing a year abroad because, the way the university talked about it, I thought it would be accessible, but they told me at the meeting that for where I wanted to go for my year abroad, you need to have $15,000 in your bank account and be able to prove it to the US government. I asked “how?” and they responded that most students get their parents to transfer them the money. My mum has never had $15,000! 

“So, it’s both the small things, like being able to have the social life at Leeds, and the bigger things, like being able to add to and enhance your degree which exclude working-class students. Work placements and internships are mostly in London, most of them are unpaid, and even the ones that are paid don’t pay enough for you to be able to afford living in London, so even accessing jobs is difficult.” Obviously, there are wider structural elements in play here; the cost of years abroad is largely defined by VISA issues, while the lack of internship opportunities up North is an effect of London-centric policies and a London-centric economy. However, the feeling is that the University of Leeds could be doing more to support its students. In Catheryne’s words, it appears that “everything seems to be built up against working-class students; it feels like the university has been founded on the assumption that everyone has money and can afford things. At the outset as a working-class student you think, because you have a bigger loan, you’re covered – but then you realise that maintenance loan is just the beginning, and there is actually a web of inequality that you’re about to enter.

“I think this is a problem among all the Russell Group universities in general. Leeds, if anything, is one of the better Russell Group universities to go to as a working-class student. Leeds has a Plus Programme aimed at helping students succeed regardless of their background or financial history. There’s also Leeds Student Finance which is based on your household income, and I get just under $2,000 of Leeds Student Finance a year; it’s helpful, but it only goes as far as buying a few of my books and helping pay for my rent. I’m aware all the universities are trying to make improvements to social mobility, but I don’t believe they’re doing enough at all. Throwing money at it just isn’t the answer – the university needs to provide solutions that involve including every student. I do believe the university has worked really hard to ensure that many students are included, however I haven’t seen anything far-reaching to show that working-class students are being included apart from a few small programs that you only qualify for if you meet very extreme criteria.”

Catheryne Sturgess-Fairbairn is currently in the process of trying to found a working-class society and will be the LUU Community Exec next year. 

Image Credit: Meet in Leeds.