Left out

Working class officers could help poorer students feel more included at university

2nd January 2019

University can be one of the best experiences of a person’s life. Arguably, though, it’s an experience that is significantly more accessible to those who are economically advantaged. Whether it’s the increasingly high fees, the elitism of Russell Group unis or the pomp of ceremonies like graduation, getting a degree can often seem like a privilege reserved for those who have the Bank of Mum and Dad to turn to.

This perception has been around since before Labour introduced tuition fees in the Nineties, but greater debate has crept up around the subject in recent years. Working-class students are a minority in many of the top universities, leading some to campaign for official positions that represent them the same way other minorities are represented.

For years, universities in Britain have had liberation officers who specifically represent women, disabled students, LGBT+ students, and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students. These positions have helped foster progress and solidarity, and provided struggling members of marginalised communities with a place to seek help. Now, some students are arguing that the working-class presence in a lot of universities has become so low that a similar position to represent them has become essential. This, it is thought, will help them gain greater opportunities, and stamp out class discrimination — something which often goes overlooked. 

While there are laws supposedly prohibiting blatant sexism or racism, such as the 2010 Equality Act, there is little to prevent similar discrimination on the basis of class. It’s rightly a criminal offence to use racial slurs, but there are rarely similar consequences to chucking around words like “chav”, “oik”, “yob” or “pleb“. It’s been argued, therefore, that just as women’s, LGBT+, BAME and disabled officers have respectively helped empower these demographics, a similar role for working-class students could help challenge class-based discrimination.

The opulence of many top university campuses can be extremely alienating for working-class students

Oxford and Cambridge have been criticised for moving backwards in terms of elitism, with the majority of students being in the top two social income groups, not to mention the existence of expensive black tie events and societies like the Bullingdon club or the Piers Gaveston Society ,where the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson went around trashing restaurants, burning money in front of the homeless and sticking their private parts into dead pigs. Over the past 50 years, there have only been three prime ministers who didn’t graduate from Oxford: James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown. So fundamentally elite are these institutions that many have questioned whether just attending them is enough for you to not be considered working-class anymore.

Sociologist Michael Savage, who specialises in social class, asserts that attending Oxbridge, the London School of Economics (LSE) or Imperial College London (ICL) — collectively dubbed the “Golden Triangle” — is often enough to elevate some to “elite status”, but this rarely applies to working-class students. Where they come from, what kind of school they went to and who they know can give some students a major advantage over their less well-connected and monied peers.

Savage argues that this institutional classism works in the same way as institutional racism or sexism. Just like a lack of women in top jobs results in women generally being paid less despite equal pay laws, working-class students can get frozen out of many aspects of university life simply because of how much these institutions are dominated by the privileged. The culture within top universities can seem daunting and alienating towards poorer students, and they can end up internalising stigmas and adjusting their own expectations or beliefs about what they’re capable of.

Ever since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition raised tuition fees back in 2010, universities have been able to hike costs up to £9,000 or more a year, resulting in students coming out of university saddled with debts of over £50,000. This triggered a wave of student protests, and the Lib Dems, which previously did well with students, lost many of its young supporters. It’s not hard to see how mountainous debts might seriously deter poor people from pursuing a higher education.

This has been the argument of Jeremy Corbyn, who has claimed that higher fees have caused huge numbers of working-class people to simply not bother applying to university, or to drop out. In fact, the rate of drop outs is at its highest in five years. And it isn’t people going to university thinking it’s going to be all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, then finding out they can’t hack their studies. There is strong evidence showing it’s the poorest, most economically disadvantaged students who are the most likely of all to drop out, and that university does in fact cost poorer students more.

While tuition fees haven’t been all that significant in the average students’ day to day burdens, they have been massively affected by the government slashing maintenance grants and a rise in the cost of living. It’s these poorer students, as well as younger people in general, who have suffered most with higher rent being charged for accommodation, and a lack of job security in the age of zero-hour contracts. This cost of living and the greater need to work multiple jobs on top of their studies, means that it is usually students from the poorest families who not only put up with the most financial strain, but also face the most pressure to succeed and endure the most emotional and physical stress.

Often, it seems like students from different classes occupy entirely different worlds. Everything is a bit more difficult for students from poorer backgrounds, whether it’s trying to balance their studies with work, or just finding housing. Most student houses require a guarantor — someone who can cover the rent, should the student be unable to pay. Since the rent for student houses is usually paid in big chunks per term, rather than on a month-to-month basis, these guarantors can find themselves suddenly being expected to pay huge amounts. Not only that, but sometimes guarantors need to pass a credit check and be earning over a certain amount to even be considered.

Even the biggest, most built-up events of university life, such as graduation, where students receive the degrees they’ve spent at least three years working for, can be intimidating and alienating for poor students. The robes worn at most graduation ceremonies across the country are manufactured by London’s oldest tailor and robe maker, Ede & Ravenscroft, who also make the robes worn by the Royal Family. Ede & Ravenscroft usually charge around £45-50 per day for gown hire, and more often than not, universities have deals with the company that ensure that graduates have to wear these specific robes if they want to attend their ceremony.

Meanwhile, having official photographs taken to commemorate the day can cost anywhere between £30 and £150. Students at, for example, Bristol University who want even just the basic gowns and photo package, face charges of £75, while the other deals on offer can be as much as £200. Edinburgh University advises students to spend as much as £1,000 on their graduation. As a result of all this, it’s estimated that 42% of students simply don’t bother attending at all

If I run out of food and my mum buys me groceries, it will be on a credit card she can’t afford

“So what?” you might ask. So not everyone goes to their graduation. It’s hardly the biggest injustice in the world. They might miss out on a two-hour ceremony full of people in funny hats and ermine cloaks, and they won’t be able to pose in a gown for Instagram, but they’ll still be coming out of it with a degree. Many would argue that, purely as a result of this, working-class students are still a pretty privileged group compared with those who don’t go to university at all. But the cost of graduation is just one example of how different things are for poorer students, who struggle with the events, routines and social lives that are taken for granted by their privileged peers.

Michaela Tharby, a University of York student who put forward the motion for her university to have a working class officer, says the biggest challenge to working-class students is coping with “culture shock” and feelings of alienation. The university elite are ignorant of the reality of poverty, and working-class students can find themselves surrounded by thousands of people who have no experience of severe financial hardship or being discriminated against because of class.

“There’s parental fund to help me out,” Tharby says. “Just the guilt of knowing that if I run out of food and my mum buys me groceries, it will be on a credit card she can’t afford. Working-class students have to not only get an education but also educate the students around them about working-class reality. It’s incredibly tiring and lonely.”

Renting an expensive gown for graduation is just one of many costs that working-class students at university might struggle with

There is a massive class divide on campuses — not just financially, but culturally. Many working-class students struggle with feelings of isolation due to a toxic atmosphere of snobbery. Claire Ainsley from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that class can be based on how you feel about yourself and your own capabilities, as much as your economic bracket, and that more privileged students generally have a far easier time getting through university life due to their innate confidence. This often means they easily dominate the room in seminars or society meetings and activities.

As a result, Ainsley argues, your background can be just as important as academic ability in determining how you perform at university. What might seem like a friendly, innocent academic discussion can quickly reveal who feels most naturally able to talk a lot and participate, and who doesn’t “belong”.

Students like Tharby back up this argument, citing instances of working-class students being kicked out of societies for “not meshing”, or having their accents ridiculed in seminars. She also draws attention to how poorer students have faced ridicule and appropriation of their culture, with her university hosting “chav” socials where students dress up as “council estate chavs”, complete with bling rings and necklaces, tracksuits and fake tan. Similar “chav nights” have also been held by girls hockey teams at Leeds University and at Edinburgh University, in which around a third of students attended private schools. Cheerleaders at Bristol were meanwhile forced to cancel their own “chav night”, despite renaming it a “comfortable tracksuit bottoms and jumper night”.

Several universities have taken steps to try and counter this marginalisation of working-class students, but there is debate over whether their methods have been effective. Oxford, for example, has a buddy system whereby working-class students are assigned to each other so that they can “discuss working-class issues”. Though well-intentioned, this doesn’t achieve anything beyond the bare minimum of giving working-class students someone to vent to, and is ultimately unproductive without any measures put in place to meaningfully tackle the issues they face.

Electing officers to represent working-class students has the potential to provide them with the same kind of representation that other communities have benefited from. Class discrimination is also often an important part of those communities’ struggles, due to the way that marginalisations tend to intersect. Class issues often compound LGBT+, BAME and women’s issues, with people of colour being much more likely to find themselves in lower economic classes, while poverty and homelessness are problems disproportionately faced by the LGBT+ community.

The implementation of working class officers has been one of the main aims of the charity Britain Has Class, which aims not only to draw attention to class inequalities but to take the whole conversation around class “into our own hands”. The charity was created by LSE graduates who met through the campaign for their university to have a social mobility and welfare officer. Campaigning for similar roles in other universities has been one of the main ways in which they have sought to give working-class people “a platform to express themselves and share their experiences”, campaigned for “real representation in universities, unions and workplaces”, and help trained activists.

University of Oxford
Working-class students are a minority at prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge

So far, the idea of a working class or social mobility officer has proved popular among students. The University of York, University of Manchester, Kings College London, St Hilda’s College of Oxford and SOAS University of London have all voted to have such a role, and there have been similar campaigns at countless other universities. The campaigns for these positions have not been without controversy, however, and some universities, such as the University of Edinburgh, have chosen not to have such a role, even after motions for one were put forward.

Some argue that simply creating another elected student officer position isn’t likely to bring about any meaningful change or resolve the larger issues facing poorer students, any more than Oxford’s buddy system. Therefore, it can only create further division and antagonism between students from different backgrounds. This is especially the case, critics maintain, since in today’s world, “class” is a relatively “fuzzy” and hard to define term. Someone’s class is not as quantifiable or as recognisable as the other demographics liberation officers exist to represent. There are no longer the same clear, fixed divisions between different kinds of jobs and backgrounds as those that existed in the last century, nor the same strong sense of communal and political identity within traditionally “working-class” areas.

It can be hard, these days, to easily ascribe any specific class identity on to an individual. What actually makes a person working-class? Is it just their financial status and the type of job they have? Or is their upbringing and education just as important? What about their accent or where in the country they come from? How important is the wealth or profession of a person’s parents, and whether they receive financial assistance from them?

Working class officers can champion change and speak up for our interests in the student union

These kinds of questions have surrounded the campaigns for working class officers from the start, evident in the different attitudes about what should make a person eligible to run. Most universities allow candidacy to be based simply on how an individual identifies. The fact that candidates must still be elected to the position is enough, its argued, to ensure that working class officers do genuinely represent working-class students, and are not just people looking for something to put on their CV. However, other universities, such as Manchester University, require candidates to meet specific criteria before they are deemed eligible to stand. Generally, this criteria regards financial status or home life. If someone receives the bursary offered by the university to its poorest students, or is a carer, then they are eligible. Cultural factors do also receive some consideration, with the position also being open to any students whose parents never went to university.

Despite the criticisms, campaigners like Tharby insist that officers explicitly representing working-class students are still well placed to make a difference. “It gives working-class students options. If their student loan is late or they’re having financial difficulty, it can be terrifying — but a working class officer can signpost to services and help students navigate the university services.”

Even if the changes they can bring about are limited, Tharby further argues that they are, in the same way as other liberation officers, helpful for providing a sense of solidarity. “They create a network where people can discuss their shared experiences and talk about any feelings of isolation. If anyone faces class discrimination on campus, they have someone who can empathise and fight for them. More than that, a working class officer can champion change and speak up for our interests within the student union.”

Women’s, disabled, LGBT+ and BAME student officers have been massively helpful in striving towards equality at universities. It is hopeful that a similar position for working-class students can provide similar results. In any case, it is likely that these roles will become soon become commonplace at universities across the country. 

2nd January 2019